The final scenes of the 2014 film Selma, which depicts Martin Luther King Jr.’s struggle for federal voting rights legislation to protect African Americans in the South, leave viewers applauding, content with our nation’s civil rights progress after witnessing a concrete example of how a protest effected meaningful national change. But what the movie doesn’t provide is an update — a scene that flashes forward almost 50 years to show how the exact rights granted to blacks who marched across Alabama in demonstration have recently been eroded by our highest court and then by states across the country.
The Golden Globe-nominated film stars the powerful David Oyelowo as King and depicts the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches which eventually led President Lyndon Johnson to sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law. While the film has been scrutinized for its depiction of Johnson as an obstructionist who had to be repeatedly persuaded by King to pass the landmark legislation, the overall takeaway from the film is the historic voting rights success caused by the activism of African Americans and other civil rights champions in Alabama.
Though the entire film portrays just a few months of the mid 1960s, it’s a strong representation of how far the country has come from when Jim Crow laws including poll taxes and literacy tests prevented voting to the passage of the legislation which regulates elections and prohibits racial discrimination in voting. The radical Jim Crow laws are depicted early in the movie when Oprah Winfrey’s character is forbidden from registering to vote because she cannot name all of the regional judges in Alabama.
The release of African American director Ava DuVernay’s film at the end of a year filled with racial tensions — from the shooting and subsequent protests in Ferguson to Eric Garner’s death in New York — makes the film especially poignant. But even more striking is how the very rights championed by King have been eroded since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in 2013 which effectively struck down the heart of Johnson’s Voting Rights Act.
The high court’s ruling in Shelby County v. Holder opened the doors for nine Southern states to change their election laws without federal approval. In the year and a half since the decision, courts have heard a number of cases about the constitutionality of newly passed voter ID legislation and other methods of voter suppression, while voters across the country have faced increased barriers to casting their ballots.
The timing of Selma’s release amidst the deterioration of voting rights has been noted by film critics and historians. Movies editor Richard Brody wrote in the New Yorker:
The voting rights that were fought for in the events of ‘Selma’ are today under attack from state governments across the country, in the North as well as the South — whether through simple gerrymandering, the intimidations of stringent voter-I.D. requirements and their vigilante enforcement, or the simple calculated scarcity of polling places, subjecting black voters to disproportionately long waiting times and thus placing impediments to their vote—and even from the grossly disproportionate rate of incarceration, where felony convictions often result in disenfranchisement.
Immediately after the Supreme Court struck down the provisions against restrictive voting legislation by ruling that Section 5 of the VRA no longer blocks discriminatory voting changes, states across the country moved forward with laws that were previously blocked. In the first year after the decision, Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia all made previously forbidden changes to their voting laws, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
The day of the ruling, officials in Texas immediately said they would implement the state’s strict photo ID law for the next election. Alabama, North Carolina and Mississippi followed shortly after and in total, 13 states have passed restrictive voter ID laws in recent years. With just a month to go before the 2014 midterm, the Supreme Court ruled that Texas could use its strict voter ID law. Although the decision offered no explanation, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in her dissent that the court’s action “risks denying the right to vote to hundreds of thousands of eligible voters.”
In addition to voter ID laws, states have found other ways to restrict voting following the dismemberment of the VRA. In 2013, Florida officials attempted to purge thousands of people from the rolls — disproportionately Latinos — because of suspicions that they were not citizens. The state ultimately suspended the effort, but a similar initiative in Virginia was more successful.
A number of states have also made efforts to shorten early voting periods and to eliminate same day registration — both actions that would have been illegal if the entire VRA was still in effect. Laws that disenfranchise felons also play a large roll in suppressing voters who are disproportionately African American.
Even without restrictive legislation blocking them from the polls, African Americans in the South still turnout to vote in lower numbers than their white counterparts. The New York Times reported this week that based on voter registration data, the legacy of Jim Crow endures for older voters in the South who grew up under segregation. “The direct effects of Jim Crow may endure as long as the generation that grew up under its influence remains,” the Times said.
In one impactful scene in Selma, a court ruling allows protesters to move forward with their third march after the first two had been blocked by state troopers instructed to act by Governor George Wallace. While the decision is given little screen time, its clear during the film that the court literally and figuratively cleared the road for the final successful march to take place.
But with a current government where the highest court can invalidate the VRA, it’s hard to imagine a modern court that would take the same kind of action as the federal circuit did in 1965. As Brody said in the New Yorker, “Were such a case to arise in a Southern circuit of the federal court today, I wonder whether there’s a judge who’d see to the rights of mainly black protesters rather than to those of the authorities.”