The tragic, history-making events
of “Bloody Sunday,” on
March 7, 1965, in Selma, Alabama, ultimately freed the vote for
millions of African Americans. Forty years later, as we reflect
on the march that led to passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965,
we are also reminded that more than two million African Americans
continue to be denied the right to vote by one of the vestiges
of American slavery.
Black voter registration in Selma in 1965 was
made virtually impossible by Alabama’s relentless efforts to block the Black vote, which
included requiring Blacks to interpret entire sections of Alabama’s
constitution, an impossible feat for even the most learned. On
one occasion, even a Black man who had earned a Ph.D. was unable
to pass Alabama’s literacy test.
On Bloody Sunday, John Lewis and Reverend Hosea Williams led almost
600 unarmed men, women and children in a peaceful march across
the Edmund Pettus Bridge from Selma to Montgomery to dramatize
to the nation their desire as Black people to participate in the
As they crossed the highest part of the bridge,
the marchers were viciously attacked by Alabama state troopers,
who ridiculed, tear-gassed,
clubbed, spat on, whipped and trampled them with their horses. In
the end, Lewis’s skull was fractured by a state trooper’s nightstick,
and 17 other marchers were hospitalized.
In direct response to Bloody Sunday, President
Lyndon Johnson, five months later, signed the Voting Rights Act
of 1965 into law. Considered
by many to be the greatest victory of the civil-rights movement,
the Voting Rights Act removed barriers, such as literacy tests,
that had long kept Blacks from voting.
Despite the promise of increased political participation by Blacks
and other racial minorities created by the Voting Rights Act, its
full potential has
not been realized by one of the last excluded segments of our society: Americans
with felony convictions.
Today, nearly 5 million Americans are literally locked out of the political
process by state felon disfranchisement laws that disqualify people with felony
convictions from voting.
The historical record reveals that to prevent newly freed Blacks from voting
after the Civil War, many state legislatures in the North and South tailored
their felon disfranchisement laws to require the loss of voting rights only
for those offenses committed mostly by Blacks.
Indeed, in recognition of the fact that Alabama’s
felon disfranchisement law was enacted in 1901 to prevent Blacks
from voting and to reinforce
white supremacy, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Hunter v. Underwood, struck
down Alabama’s provision as unconstitutional. Alabama’s felon
disfranchisement law was subsequently reenacted.
As intended, modern day felon disfranchisement laws serve to disproportionately
weaken the voting strength of Black and Latino communities. This
results largely from the disproportionate enforcement of drug laws
in Black and Latino communities, which has expanded exponentially
the number of people of color subjected to felon disfranchisement.
State felon disfranchisement statutes are the most destructive in Black and
Latino communities, which are often affected disproportionately by numerous
socioeconomic ills, including concentrated poverty, substandard education,
housing and healthcare. As a result, people in these communities are even less
able to combat these social ills through the ballot box.
Regrettably, 40 years after 600 people literally risked their lives on Bloody
Sunday to expand democracy for Blacks and other racial minorities, and in the
40th anniversary year of the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Blacks
and Latinos, rather than experiencing increased political participation, are
actually losing their voting rights daily.
It is time to erase felon disfranchisement
laws from the books. Indeed, the integrity and legitimacy of
America’s democracy, and
the fulfillment of the promise of the Voting Rights Act and the
human sacrifice that led to its passage, depends on it.
Ryan Paul Haygood is assistant counsel at the NAACP Legal
Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. and Right the Vote, a national
campaign which seeks to restore voting rights to persons with