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Voting rights march remembered

Supreme Court case fuels worry

Vice President Joe Biden and US Representative John Lewis led a group across the Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., to mark the 48th anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” march

Dave Martin/Associated Press

Vice President Joe Biden and US Representative John Lewis led a group across the Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., to mark the 48th anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” march, when state troopers brutally attacked civil rights advocates.

SELMA, Ala. — Vice President Joe Biden and black leaders commemorating a famous civil rights march on Sunday said efforts to diminish the impact of African-Americans’ votes haven’t stopped in the years since the 1965 Voting Rights Act added millions to Southern voter rolls.

More than 5,000 people followed Biden and US Representative John Lewis, Democrat of Georgia, across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma’s annual Bridge Crossing Jubilee. The event commemorates the ‘‘Bloody Sunday’’ beating of voting rights marchers — including a young Lewis — by state troopers as they began a march to Montgomery in March 1965.

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The original 50-mile march prompted Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act that struck down impediments to voting by African-Americans and legally ended all-white rule in the South.

Biden, the first sitting vice president to participate in the annual commemoration, said nothing shaped his consciousness more than watching television footage of the beatings. ‘‘We saw in stark relief the rank hatred, discrimination, and violence that still existed in large parts of the nation,’’ he said.

Associated Press/File

Vice President Joe Biden and US Representative John Lewis led a group across the Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., to mark the 48th anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” march (right), when state troopers brutally attacked civil rights advocates.

Biden said marchers ‘‘broke the back of the forces of evil,’’ but that challenges to voting rights continue today with restrictions on early voting and voter registration drives and enactment of voter ID laws where no voter fraud has been shown.

‘‘We will never give up or give in,’’ Lewis told marchers.

Jesse Jackson said Sunday’s event had a sense of urgency because the US Supreme Court heard a request Wednesday by a mostly white Alabama county to strike down a key portion of the Voting Rights Act.

‘‘We’ve had the right to vote 48 years, but they’ve never stopping trying to diminish the impact of the votes,’’ Jackson said.

Referring to the Voting Rights Act, the Rev. Al Sharpton said, ‘‘We are not here for a commemoration. We are here for a continuation.’’

The Supreme Court is weighing a challenge by Shelby County, Ala., to a portion of the law that requires states with a history of racial discrimination, mostly in the Deep South, to get approval from the Justice Department before implementing any changes in election laws. That includes everything from new voting districts to voter ID laws.

Attorneys for Shelby County argued that the preclearance requirement is outdated in a state where one-fourth of the Legislature is black. But Jackson predicted that the South will return to gerrymandering and more at-large elections if the Supreme Court voids part of the law.

Attorney General Eric Holder, the defendant in Shelby County’s suit, told marchers that the South is far different than it was in 1965 but is not at the point where the most important part of the Voting Rights Act can be dismissed as unnecessary.

Martin Luther King III, whose father led the march when it resumed after Bloody Sunday, said, ‘‘We come here not to just celebrate and observe but to recommit.’’

One of the NAACP attorneys who argued the case, Debo Adeg­bile, said when Congress renewed the Voting Rights Act in 2006, it understood that the act makes sure minority inclusion is considered up front.

‘‘It reminds us to think consciously about how we can include all our citizens in democracy. That is as important today as it was in 1965,’’ he said.

Adegbile said the continued need for the law was shown in 2011 when undercover recordings from a bribery investigation at the Alabama Legislature included one white legislator referring to blacks as ‘‘aborigines’’ and other white legislators laughing. ‘‘This was 2011. This was not 1965,’’ he said.

The Voting Rights Act, which was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, was designed to prevent racially discriminatory voting practices.

The Supreme Court is reviewing Section 5 of the law, which requires that areas of the country with a history of racial discrimination receive advance approval from the Justice Department or a federal court before changing their voting laws.

Alabama is among nine states and several counties and local jurisdictions that are subject to Section 5.

The court is now deciding whether Congress exceeded its constitutional authority when it passed the 2006 reauthorization, which extended the provision for 25 years.

In 2009 Chief Justice John Roberts signaled receptivity to the argument that the provision is outdated.

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