The movie Selma, which opens in theaters nationwide this weekend, provides a depiction of one of the most pivotal points in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The events that occurred in Selma, Alabama in the early part of 1965, particularly Bloody Sunday on March 7, led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 later on in that year. The movie explores many facets of the Selma campaign including the relationship between Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and President Lyndon B. Johnson, interaction among different segments of the social justice movement, the fierce resistance by state and local officials to the opening up the ballot box to all races, King family dynamics, brutal beatings, and more.
One of the most significant features of the movie as it relates to present day America are the many barriers that were put forth to block people from exercising their right to vote such as poll taxes, ridiculous qualification tests, literacy exams, morality requirements, property ownership requirements, and voter voucher laws to name a few. The Selma campaign dramatized these injustices and the brutal manner in which they were enforced in a way that brought national media attention and pressure for change. The Voting Rights Act would contain provisions that prohibited many actions that previously interfered with a citizen’s ability to vote.
The recent weakening of the Voting Rights Act by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder decision in 2013 rolled back the clock on voting rights and opened up new avenues of voter suppression. The Court ruled that the formula in Section 4 that specified what states would have to receive clearance from the Federal government before making minor changes to their voting laws was unconstitutional thus invalidating the preclearance provision in Section 5 also.
Since the discarding of Section 4 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, states that previously needed preclearance to change voting laws have been passing measuresthat restrict access to the ballot box at a rapid pace. North Carolina passed laws that shortened the period for early voting by seven days, prohibited same-day voter registration, imposed new photo identification requirements, and required the throwing out of ballots that were cast at the wrong polling station. On the same day as the Supreme Court ruling, the Attorney General of Texas, Greg Abbott, immediately moved to enact stricter voter ID requirements. Other states have followed suit.
The movie Selma centered on the fight for federal legislation to break down excessive barriers to exercise the right to vote in 1965. In 2015, we have our own set of voter suppression measures and tactics enacted by states that need corrective action via federal legislation. These issues need to be highlighted and dramatized in order for it to be catapulted back on the current Congressional agenda.
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