President Joe Biden will pay tribute to the heroes of “Bloody Sunday” and join thousands in the annual commemoration of the landmark moment in the civil rights movement that led to the passage of a landmark suffrage bill nearly 60 years ago.
Biden’s visit to Selma, Alabama, on Sunday also provides an opportunity to speak directly with the current generation of civil rights activists. Many are feeling devastated that Biden failed to deliver on a campaign promise to boost voting rights and are eager for his administration to keep the spotlight on the issue.
Biden intends to use his remarks to underscore the importance of commemorating Bloody Sunday lest history be erased, while arguing that fighting for the right to vote is an integral part of ensuring economic justice and civil rights for black Americans remains, according to White House officials.
This year’s commemoration also comes as the historic town of about 18,000 people is still digging after the effects of an EF-2 tornado in January that destroyed or damaged thousands of properties in and around Selma.
Prior to Biden’s visit, Rev. William Barber II, a co-chair of the Campaign for the Poor, along with six other activists, wrote to Biden and members of Congress to express their frustration at the lack of progress on voting rights legislation. They urged Washington politicians visiting Selma this weekend not to sully the memories of the late civil rights leaders John Lewis, Hosea Williams and others with empty platitudes.
“We say to President Biden, let’s bring this to America as a moral issue and show how it affects everyone,” Barber said in an interview. “When voting rights passed to Selma, it didn’t just help black people. It helped America itself. We need the President to restate this: When you block voting rights, you don’t just hurt black people. You are harming America itself.”
Few moments were as lasting for the civil rights movement as what happened in Selma on March 7, 1965, and the weeks that followed.
About 600 peaceful protesters led by Lewis and Williams had gathered that day, just weeks after the fatal shooting of a young black man, Jimmie Lee Jackson, by an Alabama soldier.
Lewis, who later represented Georgia in the U.S. House of Representatives, and the others were brutally beaten by Alabama soldiers and sheriff’s deputies as they attempted to cross Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, at the start of an alleged 54-mile walk to the state capital in Montgomery, part of a larger effort to register black voters in the South
The images of police violence sparked outrage across the country. Days later, civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. led the so-called “Turnaround Tuesday” march, in which protesters approached a police wall by the bridge and prayed before turning back.
President Lyndon B. Johnson introduced the Voting Rights Act of 1965 eight days after Bloody Sunday, calling Selma one of those rare moments in American history when “history and destiny meet simultaneously.” On March 21, King began a third march under federal protection that grew by the thousands by the time he arrived in the state capital. Five months later, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.
As the 2020 White House candidate, Biden pledged to pursue sweeping legislation to strengthen voting rights protections.
Biden introduced his legislation in 2021, naming it the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. It included provisions to curb partisan manipulation of congressional districts, lower voting barriers, and bring transparency to a murky campaign-funding system that allows wealthy donors to fund political causes anonymously.
It passed in the then-Democrat-controlled House of Representatives, but did not get the 60 votes needed to pass in the Senate. With Republicans now in control of the House of Representatives, passing such sweeping legislation is highly unlikely.
Keisha Lance Bottoms, director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, said Biden understands civil rights activists’ anger at the lack of progress.
“He’s frustrated,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean we have to stop. That doesn’t mean we stop pushing like John Lewis, then 25, led 600 protesters across that bridge in Selma.”
Civil rights activists say the Biden administration can do more on the issue.
Two years ago, on the day of the annual Bloody Sunday commemoration, Biden issued an executive order directing federal agencies to expand access to voter registration and urging agency heads to develop plans to give federal employees time off to vote or volunteer impartial poll workers and more.
But many federal agencies are lagging behind in meeting the vote registration requirements of Biden’s order, according to a report released Thursday by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
According to the report, only three out of 10 agencies audited — the Departments of the Interior, Treasury and Veterans Affairs — were rated on track in integrating voter registration services into their day-to-day interactions with the public.
The group says if authorities fully implemented voter registration efforts outlined in the executive order, an additional 3.5 million voter registration applications would be generated annually.
“We’re two years into this executive order and two years into this government, and the authorities have had a lot of time for assessment and deliberation,” said Laura Williamson, deputy director for democracy at the left-leaning group Demos.
Selma officials are hoping Biden will also address the January tornado that devastated the city and exposed poverty issues that have persisted in Selma for decades.
Biden approved a disaster declaration and agreed to provide additional help with debris removal and clearance, a cost Selma Mayor James Perkins said the small town could not afford. Perkins said Selma needs more help.
“I understand that other communities of our size and demographics have similar challenges … but I don’t think anyone can claim what Selma has done for this nation and what contributions we have made to this nation,” he said.
Chandler reported from Montgomery, Alabama.