By Shammara Lawrence
At the height of the civil rights movement, on March 7, 1965, hundreds of peaceful protestors convened in Selma, Alabama, to challenge discriminatory voting policies and help register Black voters in the South. That day, which came to be known as Bloody Sunday, 600 protesters marching from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery were assaulted by local authorities and white vigilante groups. 17 people were hospitalized and dozens more were injured, including Congressman John Lewis, whose skull was fractured. The event sent shockwaves across the country: Footage of badly beaten demonstrators dominated airwaves, serving as undeniable proof that racism didn’t only exist in the country — it was a feature of the establishment.
Bloody Sunday propelled President Lyndon B. Johnson to sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law. The bill aimed to outlaw voting practices that blocked Black Americans from the ballot box, like poll taxes and literacy tests.
Over the years, the Act has faced unprecedented attacks that would undercut voting rights In 2013, the Supreme Court nullified one of its central components, Section 5, which required states with a history of voting discrimination to get federal approval before changing voting rules. Since then, numerous states have implemented new restrictions, from restrictive voter ID laws to shutting down accessible polling locations, that have greatly affected people’s right to vote, particularly for people of color and other disenfranchised groups.
Enter “And I Still Vote,” a new campaign from the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, one of the country’s oldest civil rights coalitions. Coinciding with the 55th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the national campaign shines a light on insidious tactics used by government officials to restrict voter access, because the group is on a mission to equip everyone with the tools to easily exercise the legal right to vote.
“As we honor the brave patriots who endured Bloody Sunday 55 years ago, we must tear down the barriers to the ballot that still exist today,” Ashley Allison, executive vice president of campaigns and programs at the Leadership Conference, said in a statement. “Unless we act now, millions of Americans will be denied the right to vote in the next election.”
To commemorate the anniversary, stars like actors Aja Naomi King, Danielle Brooks, and Alfre Woodard joined activists like Alicia Garza, the CEO at Black Futures Lab and co-creator of Black Lives Matter, in the fight to protect voting rights during the 2020 election cycle. They posed for powerful images captured by New York Times-published photographer Andre D. Wagner, who has also photographed celebrities like Usher and Spike Lee, as well as the movie poster for Queen and Slim.
In each photograph, the models donned black T-shirts featuring the slogan "And Still I Vote" emblazoned across their chests. The images are at once an act of protest and a a pledge that, no matter the hurdles people of color face when voting, we will persist in making our voices heard.
This message becomes particularly vital as more and more citizens grow disillusioned by the political process. For Garza, the campaign served as a way to connect with people on the importance and impact of voting, even when it seems like your vote won’t matter, as the candidates we choose will shape the future of our country and its laws.
“I think sometimes [we] gaslight people into thinking that there's something wrong with them if they think there's something wrong with the way that this country is being run,” Garza told MTV News. “Everything that you leave on the table, we leave for opportunistic politicians to take advantage of. The answer to being dissatisfied is to get more powerful, and the way that we get more powerful is by staying engaged and staying involved.”
For Aja Naomi King, taking part in this campaign was an important way to honor the legacy of those who fought for the rights she currently has. “I can’t help but think of all the Black and brown people that came before me and risked their lives so I would be able to vote,” the actor told MTV News.
The campaign also includes the “And Still I Vote” tour, during which they’ll stage events to engage would-be voters in their own backyards. It kicked off in Selma, Alabama, on Sunday, March 1, to commemorate the 55th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. Later stops are slated to include Milwaukee and Phoenix, where many residents face voting rights obstacles. Advocates behind All Voting is Local are working with marginalized communities in these cities to identify and remedy barriers to the ballot box.
“I hope people see the campaign and are moved to vote and also talk to their friends and family about voting. I want people to spread the word. [There’s] power in voting and standing up for your voice to be heard,” Wagner said.
Allison added, “People want to engage in democracy. We need to allow every eligible voter to register to vote and when they go vote, for it to be counted.”
And while it’s crucial to fight voter disenfranchisement at the federal and state level, there are steps you can take here and now to protect your right to cast your ballot. Sites like Vote.gov and MTV’s +1 The Vote can help you register to vote, and once registered, “you want to make sure you actually get on the [voter] rolls, and you can check that by going to your secretary of state website,” Allison explained. Check in on your polling location so you’re able to plan ahead of time how to get there.
In the legacy of those who marched in Selma, the Leadership Conference is fighting to ensure that each vote is counted by informing people about their rights and advocating for legislation that eradicates discriminatory voting policies. “Sometimes people think about voting rights and they think that's what people fought for back in the day,” Garza said. “But it’s important for people to know that we're still very much fighting to not just retain our voting rights, but to expand them. For me, a country that I want to live in [is one where] there's more participation and everybody [has] access to making the decisions that shape their lives.”