Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, March
TOURO LAW JOURNAL OF RACE, GENDER, & ETHNICITY & “I know you are asking today, how long will it take . . . ? How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever . . . .” At the end of the 50 mile, five day march from Selma to Montgomery,1 in a crescendo at the conclusion of his triumphant speech on March 25, 1965, Dr. King posed these rhetorical questions; The march dramatized the need for immediate Federal intervention to pass a law mandating an end to African American disenfranchisement.
1 The Selma to Montgomery March, memorialized as “Bloody Sunday” was one of three marches.
The first march occurred on March 7 to protest the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a civil rights
protester shot by an Alabama state trooper. This march resulted in the violent confrontation by
Alabama police who attacked protesters as they attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge to
begin their march to Montgomery, the state’s capital. In response to the violent clash the
protesters marched two days later on March 9. The protesters led by Dr. King crossed the bridge,
but to avoid another violent clash King, much to the chagrin of the protesters, had the marchers
pray for the troopers and led them back across the bridge. That evening a White minister, Rev.
James Reeb, was beaten to death for participating in that march. The third and final march
occurred on March 21-25, when the 8000 protesters who marched from Selma to Montgomery
were joined by approximately 17,000 for their triumphant entry to Montgomery. After the March,
Viola Liuzzo, a protester, White housewife, and mother of five children, was murdered while
transporting protesters back to Selma.
2 Martin Luther King, Jr., Address at Montgomery, Alabama (Mar. 25, 1965),
ma_march/ (last visited 9/28/2014).
It is a fitting irony that the state of Alabama is both the birthplace and
now the gravesite of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA). As a result of the
Shelby County v. Holder decision, Section 4(b) of the VRA, has now been
interred alongside the bodies of Jimmie Lee Jackson,3 Rev. James Reeb,4 and
Viola Luizzo.5 Their brutal murders prior, during, and following the march
from Selma to Montgomery, the state’s capital, inspired its enactment.6
Now, 48 years later, the heart of the VRA – the formula that has been
used to identify the nation’s nine greatest enemies to the enfranchisement of
people of color and language minorities – has been torn from its chest.
Unfortunately, because of the Shelby County v. Holder decision, the
3 Jimmie Lee Jackson was a Deacon and a veteran who, after four attempts, was unable to
register to vote. On February 18, 1965, he participated in a march organized at night. After
leaving the church he, his mother, and 82-year-old grandfather were chased and beaten. When
Jackson came to the aid of his mother he was thrown against a cigarette machine and twice shot
in the abdomen. He died eight days later on February 26, 1965, at the Good Samaritan Hospital
in Selma. His death inspired the protest and the first attempted march from Selma to
Montgomery, the state’s capital, to demand voting rights.
4 James Reeb was an ordained minister with the Universalist Unitarian Church. He was also a
member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) when he and members of the
church interrupted their national conference to fly from Boston to Alabama to march for civil
rights. The March was in response to the “Bloody Sunday” assault upon the 600 marchers by state
troopers. Rev. Reeb and two other Unitarian ministers, “after eating dinner at an integrated
restaurant March 9, . . . were attacked and beaten by white men armed with clubs.” [He was 38.]
Following his death, an additional 17,000 people arrived to support the 8,000 protesters who
began the march in Selma. Id.
5 Viola Fauver Gregg Liuzzo was a member of the Unitarian Universalist faith, a civil rights
activist, married, and a mother of five on March 25, 1965. She was among the participants at the
Selma to Montgomery march. Following the march, she volunteered to transport other civil rights
workers back to Selma to their colleges and homes. As they were driving along Route 80, a car
with four Klansmen including an FBI informant attempted to force them off the road. The
Klansmen then pulled up alongside Liuzzo's car and shot directly at her, hitting her twice in the
head, killing her instantly. Her car veered into a ditch and crashed into a fence. She died at the
age of 39. Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography, Viola Liuzzo,
6 As better stated by Justice Ginsburg in her dissenting opinion,
The reason for the Court’s silence is apparent, for as applied to
Shelby County, the VRA’s preclearance requirement is hardly
contestable. Alabama is home to Selma, site of the “Bloody
Sunday” beatings of civil-rights demonstrators that served as the
catalyst for the VRA’s enactment. Following those events, Martin
Luther King, Jr., led a march from Selma to Montgomery,
Alabama’s capital, where he called for the passage of the VRA. If
the act passed, he foresaw, progress could be made even in
Alabama, but there had to be a steadfast national commitment to
see the task through to completion.
Shelby Cnty. v. Holder, 133 S.Ct. 2612, 2645 (2013) (Ginsberg, J., dissenting).
cancer cells of bigotry, after 48 years of being in remission, have been revived.
On June 25, 2013, the cells metastasized, re-entering America’s bloodstream
with breakneck speed, devouring the antibodies, veins, and membranes of
freedom that protected African Americans in Alabama from harassment,
intimidation, disparate treatment and disenfranchisement in their path.
The Supreme Court has returned the body of the VRA to Congress
with a “Do not Resuscitate Order.” Section 5’s power to enforce the voting
rights of racial and language minorities is gasping for air because the
radiation treatment of reauthorization has been indefinitely suspended.
The decision is disturbing to say the least. During sobering times like
these I would usually call my late father for some of his wisdom.7 So I called
upon my dad in Heaven to help me with this essay. The conversation went
something like this:
Dad, I’m sorry.
Sorry for what?
For the recent Supreme Court Decision, Shelby County v. Holder,
that all but wiped out the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The Supreme Court knocked out a major portion of the Act,
which as you know was the product of the sacrifices of your
generation and before.
But why are you apologizing? You didn’t write the opinion.
True. Shamefully, though, the Chief Justice, a member of my
He and four of his fellow Republican justices saw that in the last
six years there was a major sea change in the number of Black
folks registering, voting and participating in elections in a
number of the southern states.
That’s good news, right?
It’s good news that after 40 years of enforcing these anti-voter
discrimination laws, Black folks are finally able to register and
vote. The bad news is that the Supreme Court is sending a
thumbs up to the southern states that the fight to end voter
7 My father, Charles E. Walker, Sr., was born August 1, 1919, in Arkansas, and served in a
segregated Air Force from 1944 until it was integrated in 1948 via President Truman’s Executive
Order 9981. Exec. Order No. 9981, 13 F.R. 4313 (July 26, 1948), superseded by Exec. Order No.
11051, 27 F.R. 9683 (Sept. 27, 1962). He served for 23 years before retiring in 1967 as a
Lieutenant Colonel of the state’s first African American “Base Executive.” He was a musician
with a Master’s degree in Aeronautic Engineering, and then taught college, worked for Northrop,
and retired in 1983 before he passed away on December 29, 2000.
discrimination is over and that the federal government’s
oversight and interference with the way they run their elections
is no longer necessary.8
So what does that mean?
The Supreme Court ordered Congress to nix the formula
identifying the southern states most responsible for historically
preventing Blacks from voting. Because Black people voted in
record numbers, the Court said the formula is now out-dated
and continued reliance upon it is unconstitutional.
Is it true that Black people voted in record numbers?
Yes, African Americans, for the first time in U.S. history, out
voted Whites in five out of the six of southern states covered
under section 5 of the VRA.
In the 1960s in Dallas County, Alabama, for instance, where
Black folks comprised 57% (15,000 people) of the population, less
than 1% (130) of the age eligible Black voters were ever
registered to vote. Fewer than that even voted. Today,
approximately 66.2% of the registered Black folks voted
compared to only 64.1% of the White people. And while we only
comprised 12.5% of the eligible voters, we were 13.4% of the
people who voted.
OK, so what about this Shelby decision?
Major step backwards, Dad. Remember that march Martin
Luther King had for voting rights and 3 civil rights volunteers
were murdered and…
Yeah, that was in Mississippi. They shot those three college
students who were registering blacks to vote.
No, Dad. You’re talking about Goodman, Chaney and
Schwerner; that was the year before in June 1964, the year
before the Voting Rights Act. But I’m talking about a year later
on March 7, 1965, “Bloody Sunday,” and the march from Selma
8 Justice Ginsburg was spot on with her denunciation of the majority’s opinion, stating
Congress approached the 2006 reauthorization of the VRA with great care and
seriousness. The same cannot be said of the Court’s opinion today. The Court makes no
genuine attempt to engage with the massive legislative record that Congress assembled.
Instead, it relies on increases in voter registration and turnout as if that were the whole
Shelby Cnty., 133 S. Ct. at 2644 (Ginsberg, J., dissenting).
Justice Roberts put justice on trial by striking section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act, removing
from Congress the authority to enforce its own act--the same authority and Act and provisions
that the Court had resoundingly affirmed as an appropriate means for Congress to meet its
charge to enforce equal voting rights under the Fifteenth Amendment. See South Carolina v.
Katzenbach, 383 U.S. 301 (1966), abrogated by Shelby Cnty., 133 S.Ct. 2612.
Grandpa Me Dad
to Montgomery when three other civil rights and voting rights
protesters – Jimmie Lee Jackson, Rev. James Reeb, and a White
woman from Detroit, Viola Liuzzo – were killed. Their violent
deaths led to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that the
Supreme Court just gutted.
What a mess. So what were you saying that the Supreme Court
Essentially, they nullified that part of the VRA that identified
the states that have been the biggest violators of the voting
rights of Black citizens and sent it back for a new formula.
(To my surprise, Grandpa, Dad’s father and a staunch
Republican, was also there. He took over the conversation.)
A new formula?
Hey, Grandpa. It’s been a long time! Well, they are referring to
a new formula to determine which states should be subject to
Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi,
South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia.
Grandpa, you still there?
Actually he ran down to Martin Luther King’s place to tell him
what you said.
Chucky, we got some company. The Jacksons-Jimmie Lee and
his parents, and Grandfather Cager Lee, Dr. King and Coretta
Scott King, Viola Liuzzo and her family, Rev. James Reeb,
James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, a
bunch of Freedom Riders, along with some of their friends, and
several thousand people who say that they too crossed the
Edmund Pettus Bridge enroute to Montgomery. We got you on
speaker phone—will you please tell these folks what you just
Good day everyone. I was simply calling my father and
grandfather to commiserate about a ruling made down here
recently by the U.S. Supreme Court that invalidated a large part
of the VRA that renders the Act ineffective . . .
(An audible gasp accompanied by sounds of disbelief)
. . . until Congress passes a new formula to determine which
states are out of compliance with the VRA. Most of the original
confederate states have horrific records of voter suppression
from 1870 to the present. They’ve replaced poll taxes,
grandfather clauses, hangmen’s nooses and literacy tests with
Grandpa Me Grandpa Me
photo ID requirements, laws limiting, and in some instances
terminating, early registration and voting, redistricting plans,
and more gerrymandering.
As soon as the Court issued its decision, Texas and North
Carolina immediately implemented laws that would never have
passed muster previously but are now laws in those states. And
now that the cuffs are off, states are like buyers on Black Friday
after Thanksgiving -- breaking down the doors to disenfranchise
Blacks, Asians, Hispanics and others with the Republican
controlled Supreme Court leading the way.
(Group grumbles as they leave)
OK, Chucky. But let me ask YOU a few questions.
Did you ever have to take a literacy test to vote? Pay a poll tax?
Have KKK crosses burned on your lawn? Has your life been
threatened because you wanted to vote?
Ever been arrested like I was for walking down the wrong side of
the street because you’re Colored? Or worked in a mill like they
did in North Carolina with White coworkers, but barred from
looking out the same windows as White coworkers during
cigarette breaks? Or had the state department of public utilities
require manufacturers to make separate telephone booths? Or
been required to use separate bathrooms, and if the Colored
bathroom was broken you had to find a Colored restaurant or
drive to the next town just to use a bathroom? Or been allowed
to testify in court, but only after being sworn in on a separate
Bible . . . .
I know those are painful memories that prove there has been
progress, but this will take us backwards, Grandpa .
Black people out voted White people recently and reelected an
African American to his second term in office!!
It’s progress, but not where we need to be.
Not 48 years after the passage of this Act. Not 59 years from
declaring segregation unconstitutional. Not 80 years since they
declared White primaries unconstitutional. Not 143 years since
the passage and enactment of the Fifteenth Amendment,
Grandpa, and when they had to have military districts in these
same southern states to force them to add these amendments to
their state constitutions. And, certainly not 150 years since the
civil war and the Emancipation Proclamation.
Listen. Be patient, Grandson. Remember Dr. King said, “you
Grandpa Me Grandpa
know the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward
justice . . . .”
Yes. But with the Supreme Court’s evisceration of section 4(b)
Dr. King’s question, “How long?” will continue to go unanswered.
How long will it be before the Supreme Court shares Congress’s
goals of fulfilling the mandates of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth
How long must America wait before enfranchisement of ALL
people is a reality?;
How long will it be before discrimination-free elections dominate
America’s political landscapes?; and
How long will the Supreme Court continue its adulterous
flirtations with State’s Rights before it honors its marriage vows
to the Fifteenth Amendment and the people it was designed to
serve and protect?
Dr. King did leave YOU with an answer. He said, “Not long.”
And I agree with him.
And what makes you so certain?
Because a lie can’t live forever.
The likelihood is slim that this Congress will meet the challenge and
design a formula that is all-inclusive, that does not specifically target only
the covered states, but is objective enough to capture the past, present and
future enemies who would disenfranchise racial and ethnic minorities and
exclude them from the political process.
Who knows? It may or may not be in this Congress, or the next
Congress, or by 2031, the original date of the reauthorization, or -- with the
current Supreme Court justices -- , during our lifetime. There is one thing
that is a constant—our resilience and resistance to disenfranchisement.
We were resilient and resistant to the 246 years of slavery and a U.S.
Constitution that maintained and preserved it; we were resilient and
resistant to disenfranchisement despite a Supreme Court decision that
proclaimed that we were,
beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the
white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior,
that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and
that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his
We were resilient and resistant to disenfranchisement after the 4-year war
that claimed 620,000 lives, over 1.3% of the U.S. population, over the issue of
whether the states would coexist with slavery; we were resilient and
resistant to disenfranchisement: to the violence that has followed the
enforcement of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments; to
segregation; to the black codes; to forced integration; to racial profiling in
crimes; and for the entire 394 years since our arrival to this country, we’ve
been resilient and resistant to every act and attempt to disenfranchise us and
prevent us from fully participating in the creation and governance of this
The answer to the query, “how long” is still too elusive and frustrating
to me. I can only hope and pray that my Grandfather and Dr. King are both
exceptionally correct. My deepest and most earnest prayer is that it’s “not
long” before we all can share their optimism.