Republicans Ignore the Message of Selma

Terrance Heath

On Friday, Politico reported that no members of House Republican leadership were going to Selma, Alabama, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery. Thousands would attend, but House GOP leadership would be a no-show.

Fifty years ago, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, state troopers and a posse of white men met civil rights marchers on their way from Selma to Montgomery, to protest voting discrimination against African-Americans, and attacked them with billy clubs and tear gas. Images of the event known as “Bloody Sunday,” appeared on television, and in newspapers and magazines across the country, and around the world.

Fifty years later, Barack Obama — America’s first African-American president — would address the country from that same bridge, walk across it with several surviving Selma marchers, and celebration of the progress made since “Bloody Sunday.” And Republican leadership would miss it.

It looked like a repeat of what happened two years ago, when Republicans were no-shows for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. House Speaker John Boehner opted to speak at a separate Republican event, and every Republican invited to speak declined the invitation.

Most likely because of the Politico piece, House Majority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) reversed his original decision to skip out on the Selma events and announced late Friday evening that he would attend. At least one member of House GOP leadership would attend events in Selma, even if he was shamed into going.

Rep. McCarthy was accompanied by two dozen congressional Republicans, but while there they ignored the message of Selma. In one of the best speeches of his presidency, Barack Obama — as New York Times columnist Charles Blow described it — would “bend the past around so it pointed toward the future,” and honor the heroes of 50 years ago, while invigorating activists to rise to today’s challenges.

Blow noted that Shelby County, which launched the suit against the Department of Justice that the Supreme Court used to gut the Voting Rights Act. The president addressed current threats to voting rights head-on.

Republicans didn’t exactly rise to the occasion:

Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberly Strassel complained that President Obama spoiled his speech with, “this argument that there’s still a big problem because of voter ID laws across the country,” which Strassel said is “simply not true.”

  • As Isaiah J. Poole wrote last week, 22 states have passed voting restrictions. Seven of the eleven states with the highest African-American turnout in 2008 put new voting restrictions in place.
  • Rev. William Barber wrote that voting restrictions in North Carolina not only require a government-issued photo ID, but also cut back early voting and Sunday voting, eliminated same-day registration, and pre-registration, and out-of-precinct voting.

The only thing conservatives took away from Selma was this: civil rights marchers were beaten 50 years ago, but the real victim of this Selma march is former President George W. Bush. Why? Because the New York Times supposedly cropped Bush out of its front-cover photo of the march. Except, that’s not quite what happened.

It would all be laughable, but the gains that Selma marchers fought for are under serious threat, just 50 years later.

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