On March 7, 1965, some 600 civil rights activists, led by a young SNCC organizer named John Lewis, began marching down U.S. Highway 80 in Selma, Alabama. When they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they were met by a wall of state troopers and a county posse armed with tear gas, nightsticks and ill intent.
By the time it was all over at least 50 of the marchers were injured and another 17 were hospitalized, including Lewis whose skull had been fractured by a nightstick to the head. Video and photos of the violently senseless incident were broadcast across the world sealing Bloody Sunday into the folds of history immortalizing many of these activists who were there that day to demonstrate against newly passed voting restrictions.
Fast forward to today and I swear that history is repeating itself.
Don’t get me wrong, intimidation and legislation to keep Black voters from the ballot box have been used for years to stop us. Generations of men and women who looked like John Lewis (and me) faced financial ruin, physical violence and the full force of law enforcement if they dared to exercise their most basic of American rights — the right to vote.
RELATED: The Road to the Voting Rights Act
We saw this happen in 2008 when African American turnout drove a blue wave only to watch Republicans respond with new Voter ID laws and now, we’re seeing it again today, but this time it’s worse. This time a Republican State Leadership Committee and GOP-led legislatures across the country are using the big lie of voter fraud, the same big lie that sparked the January 6 Capitol insurrection, as cover for an unprecedented attack on voting rights.
Let’s be clear, despite proof that the 2020 election was the most secure election in American history, Republicans are pushing 253 bills in 43 states to restrict Americans’ right to vote.
This can only be in response to the record turnout of voters who have rejected the GOP agenda across America and the only way they can fight back is to try to ensure those Americans, particularly voters of color, don’t get a chance to vote again.
In Georgia, where 1.2 million Black voters helped turn the state blue, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan has introduced a bill repealing no-excuse absentee voting. And, how many Georgians used no-excuse absentee voting to cast their ballots in 2020? 1.3 million.
It’s simple, while many issues are important, by far the most consequential issue of our day, just as it was 56-years ago is that of voting rights.
In episode three of BET’s new six-part investigative docuseries, “Boiling Point,” Lynda Blackmon-Lowery, tells her story about growing up in a segregated Selma where she says by the age of 7, she knew white people hated her. When she was 13, Lynda heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preach for the first time and it was enough to activate her heart and mind to fight for change in the country.
“In his speech, [Dr. King] said you could get anybody to do anything with steady loving confrontation. And the second time he said it in that speech, I distinctly heard him call my name and say, Lynda, you can get anybody to do anything with a steady loving confrontation. I remember jumping up saying, ‘Oh yeah, that’s how I’m going to do it’ and that’s what led me to be on that bridge on March 7th, 1965.
By 14, Lynda became a young freedom fighter joining others on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7th, 1965 who risked everything to prove they too deserve the rights of full citizenship.
Lynda recounts the trauma of Bloody Sunday, which left a psychological wound so deep, she remains unable to walk across the bridge alone to this day. She was pulled by her collar, tear-gassed, hit in the forehead, and called words that don’t bear repeating.
There is nothing more intrinsically American than the right to vote. Denying that right, these Republicans today are saying that we’re just Black, not American. In 1905, a young African American man named George Elmore was born in the heart of Jim Crow South Carolina. The future didn’t hold many options for a young black man like George, but he worked hard and dreamt big and, little by little, he found his life changing.
Moving from the rural Lowcountry to Columbia’s historic Ninth Ward, a rare and thriving oasis of African-American entrepreneurship and opportunity in South Carolina’s state capital, George began to build a family and a life.
Moonlighting as a taxi driver and photographer, he built several small businesses from the ground up including a small grocery store which quickly became a commercial and cultural touchstone for the community. By any measure, George had achieved the American dream— then he tried to vote.
There wasn’t a problem at first. George was light skin enough that the county clerk actually thought he was white and, just like that, he was registered. It was however casting that vote where the problems arose.
Simply said: He tried…they denied…he sued…and he won.
In fact, United States District Judge Waites Waring’s 1947 ruling in Elmore v Rice, not only affirmed Elmore’s right to vote, it struck down the closed primary as it was being used in South Carolina and across the nation. It was a huge win for the cause of Civil Rights, but it wasn’t without its costs.
The backlash from his suit and the resulting decision in his favor cost George everything. He lost his businesses and thus the success he had achieved along with a surge of never-ending threats and burning crosses near his home. The trauma caused his wife to have an emotional breakdown which left her institutionalized for the rest of her life.
George had the audacity to think he would be treated like any other American. By the end of his life in 1959, George, who was once someone full of life, hope, and the thrills of success, was left a poor and broken man.
This is our story – our American story–written by the Lynda Blackmon-Lowerys, George Elmores and countless other brave individuals who believed they too are Americans who deserve the right to vote.
The lesson for us all is to remember that we cannot allow their sacrifices to become meaningless. Don’t let the blood spilled on Bloody Sunday be in vain. Don’t let the Republican State Leadership Committee tell us our heroes were wrong. It’s up to us all to make sure that the legacy created that day has both everlasting meaning and impact.
Antjuan Seawright is a Democratic political strategist, founder and CEO of Blueprint Strategy LLC, a CBS News political contributor, and a senior visiting fellow at Third Way. Follow him on Twitter @antjuansea.