*This post is part of our two-week symposium on racial inequalities in the criminal justice system.
The history-making events of “Bloody Sunday” on March 7, 1965, in Selma, Alabama, ultimately freed the vote for millions of Black voters. But 50 years later, as we commemorate the march that led to passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, we are also reminded that more than two million Black people 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 political process.
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 Black people and other people of color created by the Voting Rights Act, which twice led to the election of a Black president, its full potential has not been realized by one of the last excluded segments of our society: Americans with criminal convictions.
Today, more than 5 million Americans are 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 Black people.