‘Selma’ puts importance of Black voting power on display

The Edmund Pettus Bridge, in Selma, Ala., was the site of Bloody Sunday on March 7, 1965, a key moment in the quest for voting rights for Blacks in the United States. The event is part of the story in the film “Selma.”

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The Edmund Pettus Bridge, in Selma, Ala., was the site of Bloody Sunday on March 7, 1965, a key moment in the quest for voting rights for Blacks in the United States. The event is part of the story in the film “Selma.”

The dustup over “Selma” is clouding the film’s most valuable takeaway: Freedom is never free.

“We negotiate, we demonstrate, we resist,” the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. character intones in the film, summarizing the civil rights strategy that led to federal protection of the right to vote and, as we are reminded in this biopic, also led to permanent injury and loss of life for people who answered King’s call to resist a power structure designed to exclude them.

“When you see what the right to vote cost us, you can’t just cast it aside,” Creighton Barr announced in an impromptu speech as the credits rolled during a screening of “Selma” at Chicago’s ICON Theatre this past weekend. The aspiring minister wanted the audience and his two teenagers to appreciate the sacrifices made by a determined generation and the responsibility that has been passed on to the rest of us.  Responsibility to exercise the right they marched, fought and died for. The duty of citizenship. The debt to our forbears.

That is why the issue of whether the film merited more Oscar attention to me is not as important as whether it merits our attention. It does.

Apart from the critical appraisal of “Selma’s” no-holds-barred depiction of President Lyndon Johnson (a ruthlessly pragmatic political animal) and Dr. King (an inspirational, if imperfect, man of the cloth); despite the sometimes on-the-nose dialogue and the somewhat muted scenes of the horrific March 7, 1965 “Bloody Sunday” police riot-of-an-attack on peaceful demonstrators; and irrespective of the snarky questions about the validity, the authenticity of casting British actors in leading roles (I mean, come on, really?), there are valuable lessons from this powerful historical moment that continue to challenge us to “negotiate, demonstrate, resist.”

Everything that matters is set in motion when we cast our votes. We can think about the headline-grabbing and history-making elections of Harold Washington as Chicago’s first African American mayor and Barack Obama the first African-American U.S. president. These important events represent powerful messages about the positive value of truly representative leadership. The very image of strong, intelligent, equitable Black leadership is a text for a much-needed counternarrative in our society. One that defies the stereotypes that have been used to justify marginalization, exclusion. Even more than image, the election of new leaders also opens the door to progressive policies that benefit everyone. That is why the value of the vote is not just seen in the high-profile elections that tend to stimulate huge Black turnout, but in the smaller, quieter contests that don’t draw national media.  Sadly, they also don’t draw enough interest or participation by the people most affected by them.

Take Ferguson, Mo.  President Obama’s 2012 re-election drew a 54 percent African-American turnout in the St. Louis suburb. But the 2013 local elections drew only a 7 percent turnout among the 67 percent black population. Local elections are coming up again this April in a city that has been torn by racial strife springing in part by the imbalance in the power structure. Responsibility. Duty. Debt. The lessons of “Selma.”  Three of the five Ferguson City Council seats are up this time around. How will the Ferguson residents “demonstrate” at the polls? For that matter, how will we do it?  Next month.  In Chicago.

Nowhere can the importance of Black voting power be seen more clearly than in the countermeasures. The efforts to limit it. Cut it back. Take Shelby County v. Holder, for example.

Among other things, the 1965 Voting Rights Act that grew out of the Selma to Montgomery march and the media coverage of the bloodbath featured in the “Selma” film required federal preclearance of any changes in voter-participation rules by local governments that had a history of discrimination at the polls. Literacy tests, poll taxes and vouchers were all used throughout the South to limit African-American participation and were struck down, eliminated through enforcement of the Voting Rights Act’s Section 5 preclearance. Over time, counties that once had no registered African-American votes began to elect black candidates to local offices. A “way of life” changed.

Shelby threatened to change all that. The 2013 Supreme Court ruling in that case limited the Section 5 preclearance requirement of the Voting Rights Act.  And the changes came pretty quickly. Two months after Shelby, North Carolina passed measures eliminating same-day registration, shortening the early-voting period by seven days and requiring voter photo identification — all measures that have limited participation of people of color and the poor.

Similar measures have been enacted in other states in what some have referred to as a “war on voting.” It is a partisan conflict, one recognized by President Obama in his State of the Union address this week.

“We may go at it in campaign season,” he said, “but surely we can agree that the right to vote is sacred; that it’s being denied to too many; and that, on this 50th anniversary of the great march from Selma to Montgomery and the passage of the Voting Rights Act, we can come together, Democrats and Republicans, to make voting easier for every single American.”

Making voting easier for the poor and people of color who tend to support more liberal candidates is not on the agenda of conservative lawmakers who support voter identification, they say, to protect against voter fraud. The evidence does not support that argument.

As noted by the president, this is an historic anniversary year for voting rights.  And it is leading up to what might be an historic national election year.  Earlier this month, a group of voting-rights advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union, petitioned the Supreme Court to hear a challenge to a voter-identification law in Wisconsin, where an estimated 300,000 registered voters might be stricken from the rolls.

Voter identification is the literacy test of the contemporary moment. Exactly what people 50 years ago marched and fought and died to eliminate forever.

Clearly voting matters, from local elections in Ferguson and state elections in Wisconsin to national elections that take people to Washington, D.C., where policy is made, laws are passed and Supreme Court justices are confirmed.

Photo: Edmund Pettus Bridge/Shutterstock