More than 50 years ago, George Sallie, at the time a 36-year-old Korean War veteran, shuffled behind Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders of America's civil rights movement in a march stretching 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. It was a physically challenging journey — and one of a series of events that eventually led to the passing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that same year.
Now, in mid-summer 2015, Sallie, dressed in canary yellow t-shirt and jeans, once again joined roughly 300 activists in Alabama to retrace the Selma march in the shadow of a 2013 Supreme Court decision which excised a key part of the Voting Rights Act. The march will take place over 46 days, cross five southern states and 860 miles before reaching Washington, DC, in the NAACP's inaugural "America's Journey for Justice."
Activists from all walks of life — students, grandmothers, and children — are marching to request economic inequality, education, criminal justice reform, and voting rights.
Many of the activists believe that the Voting Rights Act was paid for with the blood of protesters on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma on March 7, 1965, when they met state troopers armed with billy clubs and teargas at the Montgomery county line. Sallie was there.
He's now 86, and still bears a bulging inch-long scar below his hairline where a "redneck posse" man's baton split open his forehead open that day.
"I fought for for my country in Korea for someone else's freedom, and then came home and realized I didn't have freedom of my own. Everywhere I tried to get a job, I was discriminated against — folks couldn't vote, which is why we had the Selma marches back then," Sallie told VICE News. "What's the use of having legislation to protect our right to vote if it ends up being gutted?"
Under a sweltering midday sun, members of the NAACP, the nation's oldest and largest civil rights coalition, together with other groups and residents from in and out of state, met at the foot of Selma's historic, steel-girded bridge Saturday to start their journey.
"We know we can do the distance, because our lives, our votes, our jobs, and our schools matter," NAACP President Cornell William Brooks, a civil rights lawyer, roared into a lectern stationed yards from the bridge shortly before the march kicked off.
"All men are created equal under the Declaration of Independence. And yet I'm reminded of the distance between those words and these words: 'I can't breath,'" Brooks said, referring to the last sentence gasped by unarmed black man Eric Garner as a New York City Police officer held him an illegal chokehold last summer. "I'm reminded of the distance between the words of our founding fathers and a grandfather by the name of Eric Garner."
The Justice March comes after a year of protests to end racial injustice — from biased policing and racial profiling to restoring voting rights to residents in mostly Southern states, where lawmakers have moved to restrict them in the wake of the Supreme Court's 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision.
The signing of the Voting Rights Act into law on August 6, 1965 was a landmark legal protection for African Americans and an acknowledgement of and attempted rectification for the decades of segregationist policies in the South, where blacks were forced to recite verses of the Constitution or subjected to other literacy tests as they tried to register their names on voter rolls.
The Act eviscerated the most egregious obstacles for black voters, and its powerful Fifth Section specifically required all states that had been historically plagued by racism and disenfranchisement to run any future voting law changes by the federal government first — a policy known as "preclearance." The law was furiously contested by Republican lawmakers, who protested it as an encroachment on states' rights and the very principles of federalism.
While the Supreme Court's 5-4 decision in 2013 — nicknamed simply "Shelby" for the Alabama county that petitioned the case — left the Voting Rights Act's preclearance clause intact, it struck down Section 4, which sets out how the Justice Department can enforce Section 5; essentially diluting the Department of Justice's powers to vet state voting bills and stop legislators from passing unfair laws or redistricting areas without prior approval.
The response from local and state governments was immediate and exacting. Within two years, at least 10 of the 15 states previously covered by Section 5, including Alabama, Texas, Virginia, and Mississippi, introduced new restrictive voting laws. The legislation sought to strip back many policies enacted over the years that had significantly increased voter participation among African Americans and other minorities, including early voting periods, same-day voting, and allowing alternate IDs at polls.
In North Carolina, where one of the most stringent laws amending voting rights was passed shortly after the Shelby decision, a coalition of activists led, including the NAACP, have filed a suit against governor Pat McCrory to repeal what they've dubbed the "monster voter suppression law." Final closing arguments in the case were heard on Friday, the afternoon before the Justice March was set to begin.
In the midst of the three-week trial, Congressional Democrats moved to introduced a bill to restore federal preclearance and strengthen other provisions of the Voting Rights Act. On September 16, when the NAACP march concludes on the steps of the nation's Capitol, activists will call for lawmakers to pass the Voting Rights Advancement Act 2015, among other pieces of legislation addressing racial disparity, including the Raise the Wage Act, the Paycheck Fairness Act, and the End Racial Profiling Act introduced this April.
Alicia Garza, the co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, who did not attend the march Saturday, told VICE News this week that "the struggle around voting rights comes full circle," especially in states across the South where rights are "being whittled away pretty intentionally and access to democracy being denied."
"We always say at [Black Lives Matter] that 'we live in the best of times and the worst of times,'" Garza said, invoking the opening paragraph of Charles Dickens' Tale of Two Cities. "Black folks on the one hand have more opportunities than we've ever had, but on the other hand, what we're seeing is a real rollback of so many of the things that we fought for to reclaim our humanity."
The [Black Lives Matter] movement has burgeoned out of what some labeled as America's "Black Spring" — a series of coordinated actions and protests in Ferguson, New York, Baltimore, and elsewhere across the country fuelled by the continued police killings of unarmed black people.
The Justice March begins in Selma just one week before the anniversary of the killing of unarmed black teen Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.
Protests, rallies, and die-ins were staged in the months following Brown's death, as more videos of police brutality and shootings surfaced, accompanied by rallying social media hashtags and slogans like #NoJusticeNoPeace, #BlackLivesMatter, and more recently #SayHerName, in response to the hanging death of 28-year-old Sandra Bland in a Texas jail cell last month.
On Saturday night, after seven hours of marching in 90-degree heat, marchers laid out sleeping bags in the gymnasium of a former high-school annexed to St. Jude's Church in Montgomery, Alabama, where the original Selma marchers slept more than 50 years ago. Brooks, who will accompany activists on every leg of the journey, was among them. He told VICE News over a plate of barbecue pork and beans in the building's ageing cafeteria that the so-called new civil rights movement is "predicated on some old lessons coupled with new technology."
"We're marching under the banner our lives, our votes, our jobs, and our schools matter because we consider the criminal justice issues implicated by our lives as largely fuelled by social media," he said. "We had our people take cell phone videos and send them around the world, which compelled President Obama to lift Michael Brown's name in Geneva. We see these tragedies, yet we have not seen a uniform policy response."
The Justice March, led by a new civil rights vanguard, seeks to address this — targeting the intersection between battles fought in the courtroom, on the street, and online in raising public awareness and shifting attitudes, said Brooks.
"Each of the four pillars of this platform is tied to specific pieces of legislation — so the whole purpose of this march is not just to march, but to push for laws when we get to Washington," he said, adding that he is especially confident Congress will move forward with the Voting Rights Restoration Act of 2015.
"Going into 2016, I don't think it's a good look for any party to duck the issue," he said. "There's no partisan advantage to be gained by looking like you're insensitive to African American voters, to Latino voters, people with disabilities, elderly voters, and people from rural communities."
This story is the first of two parts of VICE News' coverage on voting rights and racial justice in the American South
Watch the VICE News conversation, "Talking Heads: A Look Back at the Violence in Ferguson."