The Importance of Selma 50 Years Ago and Today

By now, most Americans should know the significance of Selma, Alabama. Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr., led hundreds of Americans on a planned march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. In the fight to secure voting rights for African Americans and other minorities across the country, the march was meant to be a peaceful representation of the outrage many felt in their fight to overcome the obstacles standing in the way of voting. Yet, they were met with violence at the hands of the local police force -- assaults themselves representing the oppression and brutality regularly present in communities of color across the country.


Days later, after massive public outrage as the images from the Edmund Pettus Bridge were beamed across the world, King and the other marchers completed their journey. Eventually, the march went on unimpeded -- and the echoes of its significance reverberated so loudly in Washington, D.C., that Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, which secured the right to vote for millions and ensured that Selma was a turning point in the battle for justice and equality in the United States.


This weekend, President Obama led a march of thousands in Selma to commemorate the historic struggle that occurred there 50 years ago and to note that, as he said, "our march is not over." And, I was proud to march as a member of the Sierra Club, crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge alongside politicians, union members, civil rights champions, and concerned citizens, joining not only in the celebration but also in the continued fight to protect voting rights across the United States.


This march was not just a ceremony -- it was a call to action. In fact, the Voting Rights Act that the original Selma marchers pushed for in 1965 has been jeopardized by a deeply flawed Supreme Court decision and a series of bills introduced across the country that would suppress the vote of communities of color, seniors, and young people.  


In 2013, the Supreme Court decimated a vital portion of the Voting Rights Act that guaranteed federal review of changes to voting laws on a state level. The Court declared this law was somehow outdated, putting the onus on Congress to update it. As Congress has sat idly by, many state legislatures took the loss of oversight as an opportunity to go back in time to the pre-Selma era, when obstacles to the ballot were numerous and the constitutional ability to vote for millions was severely limited.  In fact, since the recent Court decision, 41 state legislatures have introduced 180 pieces of legislation to limit voting rights.  And of course, Congress has been deadlocked when it comes to updating and fixing the Voting Rights Act.  


For the sake of our democracy and our environment, it's past time for that to change. The Sierra Club marched side by side with thousands in Selma because attacks on our democracy are attacks on all of us. But, beyond that, the fact is that the communities of color and low-income Americans targeted so often by suppressive attacks on voting rights are the same ones facing the worst abuses from big, polluting corporations and the worst consequences of climate change.  In other words, communities in Texas leading the fight against dangerous fossil fuel refineries are also at risk of having their voices silenced by voter-suppression legislation. People in Virginia who are seeing the reality of sea level rise on a frighteningly regular basis are also having to fight restrictive registration and voter ID laws.


Who could be surprised? When more people are shut out of the system, it makes it harder to change the status quo that has empowered polluting corporations so much in the first place. And if we lose our right to vote, we lose a powerful weapon to fight back. It's happening all across the country, and it's vital that we close the floodgates on these attacks before it's too late.


To protect our environment, we must protect our democracy. That's why I marched in Selma. And this is only the beginning. Seeing the thousands who marched around me and who feel the same way, I couldn't help but feel hopeful for the future. Fifty years ago, brave Americans in a small Alabama town set the foundation for what can be achieved with grassroots action. Our coalition is bigger and stronger than ever before, and we're not going to stop marching until we've won yet again.

-- Glen Besa, is the director of the Sierra Club Virginia Chapter. He traveled to Alabama from Virginia with three others from the Virginia Chapter.