• April 24th, 2024
  • Wednesday, 07:00:42 PM

Selma is Sacred Ground, Not a Place for Political Pretense



Editor’s Note: The following is an open letter to the President of the United States and Members of Congress, sent on Feb. 20 from national faith and civil rights leaders:


This is a critical year in the life of our country. On the one hand, the President and progressive members of Congress have fought to pass policies that have lifted up Americans in many ways. From COVID relief measures to infrastructure investments to child tax credits that lifted millions of children out of poverty (for a brief moment) to the appointment of the first Black woman Supreme Court Justice, we can celebrate some real progress.


But, on the other hand, with a Democratic President and control of the House and Senate for two years, Democratic leadership was unable to raise the federal minimum wage, which has not increased since 2009. 50 Republicans and 2 Democrats denied 55 million Americans a raise to $15 an hour, and the same obstructionist caucus filibustered every attempt to restore the Voting Rights Act, allowing regressive legislative bodies across the nation to pass more voter suppression bills than any time since Jim Crow and to go through another round of dangerous redistricting, which nullifies the potential power of progressive voting coalitions by stacking and packing votes in certain districts to predetermine outcomes before any vote is cast.


We are coming upon another remembrance of Bloody Sunday, when the nation will recall how Black, white and brown Americans; Jews, Muslims, Christians, and Unitarians dared to put their bodies on the line when they did not have a political majority in order to expose the evils of segregation, racism, and the denial of voting rights. We will honor and remember those who knew, as Dr. King said, that if the masses of poor Black people and poor white people in the South could come together to form a political voting block, they could fundamentally shift the economic architecture of the country towards programs that lift poor and low-wage people.


In recent weeks, Selma has been hit by a major tornado, exposing the poverty and vulnerability that still exists in this community that has been the backdrop for so many commemorations. The country must make a decision. Mr. President, you must make a decision. Congress must decide if we are going to address the crisis of poverty by confronting the denial of voting rights that prevents a majority in Congress from enacting the change that is needed.


Voting rights were not highlighted in this year’s State of the Union, but we have less voting rights protections today than we had August 6, 1965. Economic investment in the South and places like Selma was not a central theme in this year’s State of the Union, but we know that if you suppress votes and block living wages, poor people of every race suffer and the promise of democracy is undermined.


Poor and low-income people now make up more than 112 million people in this country—a number that is only temporarily down from 140 million because of anti- poverty measures that are already expiring. Every Southern state has more than 20% of its population that lives in poverty and low-wealth conditions. When you disaggregate that by race, the numbers are staggering.


The question before us cannot simply be whether we will take the path of extremists who call themselves Republicans and want to roll as much as they can backwards and cut as much as they can, except for tax breaks to their corporate friends; or the path of Democrats, who rightfully celebrate things that have been accomplished but then fail to highlight the crisis in voting, poverty, wages, and economic development, particularly in the South—in rural places like Selma, where we go to remember what was done in the past but do not bring a plan for what must be done now.


If the President or other politicians are going to come to Selma, they should come on Bloody Sunday, when John Lewis and others were beaten and almost killed, to declare that the fight for voting rights and the restoration of what they marched across that bridge for is not over. They should pledge to restore and expand voting rights. They should come to say that they will intensify the battle for living wages that Dr. King talked about at the end of the Selma to Montgomery March; intensify economic investment in rural areas. Maybe the President and members of his cabinet can bring resources to present on that sacred Sunday to the people of Selma who have been devastated by disaster.


We caution all politicians who have done little or even blocked the restoration of the Voting Rights Act but want to come down for a photo op on Saturday and undermine the sacredness of Sunday; who want to come and say they honor those who were beaten on that bridge and they recognize what was done back then while they are actively undermining democracy right now.


There is such a thing as hypocrisy, and just as the President wisely called out extremism on Social Security and Medicaid for the whole world to see, he should challenge anyone who claims to honor Bloody Sunday to make clear where they stand on restoring the Voting Rights. One study says 50 million Americans–not just Black people–are being suppressed in some way or another by the voter suppression


measures that have been passed since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in its 2013 Shelby decision.


Voter suppression hurts Black people and white people; Asians and Latinos; gay people, disabled people, and working people. We hear a lot of talk about threats to our democracy, but what is more of a threat to a democracy than voter suppression and the refusal to fully protect the 15th amendment and the 14th amendment’s guarantee of equal protection?


There are those who say that the way to make change is to increase turnout in elections. But the very point of redistricting is to undermine the power of the vote so that even if you have a massive turn out, those votes are so isolated into certain districts that they do not change the balance of power in legislative bodies. That is the whole point of gerrymandering.


Those of us who are planning to be in Selma to honor the struggle for voting rights and economic justice should be willing to protest and engage nonviolently if politicians attempt to do moral harm to the memory and the sacredness of what happen on Bloody Sunday. We send this open letter because we care about the heart and soul and future of this nation. This is no time for foolishness, photo ops, and flaky commitments.


Let us be clear: to honor the memory of Bloody Sunday is to work for the full restoration of the Voting Rights Act, the passage of the original For the People Act that John Lewis helped to write, not the bill that was watered down by Joe Manchin who wouldn’t even vote for his own compromise. To commemorate Bloody Sunday is to commit to raising of the minimum wage to a living wage, to ensuring that every American has adequate healthcare, and to enacting economic development that touches poor and low wealth communities.


We hear a lot of talk about threats to our democracy, but what is more of a threat to a democracy than voter suppression and the refusal to fully protect the 15th amendment and the 14th amendment’s guarantee of equal protection?


We cannot have a severed morality. 700 people are dying every day from poverty and the effects of poverty that could be changed with policy adjustments that would benefit everybody. 87 million people are still uninsured or underinsured at a time when we have more people on healthcare than ever before. Essential workers who saved us during COVID still do not have living wages and paid family leave. Some of them have said, “We were told we were essential, but when we don’t have paid family leave and can’t afford insurance and our voting rights are under attack and we can’t live on what we’re earning, we feel expendable.”


If you are serious about Selma and serious about this Democracy, then come on Sunday to commemorate Bloody Sunday and pledge to restore and expand voting rights. While regressive policies try to take us backward over the Edmund Pettus Bridge, we need leaders who know what is right, regardless of your party, to say forward together, not one step back! We need leaders willing to make public their commitment to intensify the struggle for voting rights and living wages.


Selma is sacred ground. It is, in a very real sense, the delivery room where the possibility of a true democracy was born. It is no place to play or to be for political pretense. Either you’re serious or not. If you’re coming, come on Sunday, the actual day of remembrance. If you’re coming, come with a commitment to fight for what these people were willing to give their lives for.


Mr. President, we hope to see you in Selma on Bloody Sunday. But, more importantly, we hope to see what Frederick Douglass called an intensification of the struggle to get done what the Constitution says must be done; what the Declaration of Independence says should be done, most of all, what God requires of us. If you come to stand with us, we will stand with you and work together until we become the nation we have never yet been.


Bishop William J. Barber, II, President, Repairers of the Breach


Co-Chair, Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival; Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, Director, Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice, Co-Chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival; Senator Hank Sanders, Former Alabama State Senator , Civil Rights Activist; Faya Rose Toure, J.D., Civil Rights Activist; Rev. Mark Thompson, Civil Rights Activist; Rebecca Marion, Board Chair, Bridge Crossing Jubilee Board; and Rev. Carolyn Foster, Tri-chair, Alabama Poor People’s Campaign.