SELMA, ALABAMA — Dozens of members of Congress, and many more Republicans than ever before, came to Selma this week to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the infamous attack on voting rights protesters known as Bloody Sunday.
Some lawmakers told ThinkProgress the event highlighted the urgency of passing a currently languishing bill that would restore the full powers of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Others showed little interest in doing so.
On his way to the commemoration ceremony, Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) said it’s been “powerful” to hear stories from Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), who helped lead the Selma march 50 years ago and was severely beaten by police. But when ThinkProgress asked if he supports Lewis’ voting rights bill, he replied, “I haven’t looked at it. Is there a Senate version?”
A Senate version was introduced several weeks ago, and currently has zero Republican sponsors.
Portman, who has advocated for cuts to Ohio’s early voting period and voted against the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, added before walking away: “This day is about more than just tweaks to the Voting Rights Act. This is about ensuring equal justice and learning from the lessons of the past.”
This year’s congressional delegation also included Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) — a vocal supporter of voter ID laws in South Carolina — and Rep. Tom Emmer (R-MN), who has tried to pass laws to require proof of citizenship for voting, a policy found to disenfranchise eligible voters in other states.
While walking to the VIP section of the Selma anniversary event, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) said of Lewis’ bill: “I haven’t studied it sufficiently to comment on it.” And while Lewis, President Obama and others emphasized Saturday how far the country still has to go to eradicate racism and voter suppression, Sessions told ThinkProgress: “I think we’ve had so much improved voting rights in Alabama that the Court was probably correct [to strike down part of the Voting Rights Act].”
“We are witnessing a renewed assault on voting rights and civil rights, and we in Congress have work to do,” Rep. Terri Sewell (D-AL) told ThinkProgress. “I’m not going to force my own views on my colleagues or question their motives, but I hope people come away with a renewed sense of their responsibility as lawmakers to further those ideals.”
Other Democrats on the delegation were much more pointed.
“It is a sin that we have not in the U.S. Congress re-invigorated the Voting Rights Act and gotten it back to the President for a signature. That’s what we ought to be talking about in Selma today,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).
Vermont Senator and rumored presidential candidate Bernie Sanders (I) added, “What happened on that bridge that day was a huge step forward for democracy in America. But what is happening right now — not just in the South but all over this country — are efforts by Republican governors and Republican legislatures to make it harder for African-Americans, for low-income people and for senior citizens to vote.”
Some civil rights leaders, including Wade Henderson with the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, accused some of the visiting lawmakers from both parties of hypocrisy.
“Commemoration requires legislation. Selma isn’t just a photo op, it’s a solemn remembrance of the blood, sweat, tears, and lives that went into securing voting rights for racial minorities in this country,” he said. “The Bloody Sunday march is not a parade, and it is hypocritical for members to attend the event and then do nothing to advance a VRA restoration.”
Sewell, a native of Selma and granddaughter of sharecroppers, was born just two months before Bloody Sunday. Now, she’s the first African American woman to represent Alabama in Congress. When she returns to DC next week after being, in her words, the “hostess with the mostest” in Selma, she hopes to call on her colleagues to restore that law that has defined her life and career.
“I know that I get to walk the halls of Congress today because of the blood that was shed on that bridge and the courage of foot soldiers black and white who were willing to make that sacrifice,” she said.
But other lawmakers on the delegation said the most effective pressure won’t come from inside Congress, but from the grassroots. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) told ThinkProgress that just like 50 years ago, “It’s the young people and the peaceful protests that are going to force Congress to do the right thing.”