Washington, DC…Reverend Leodis Strong, Bishop Adam Jefferson Richardson, Congresswoman Terri Sewell, members of Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church, friends—it is an honor to join you as we commemorate the 56th anniversary of the Selma Bridge Crossing. Three years ago, I spoke from your pulpit. I was there in the pews last year when I joined Congressman John Lewis on his annual civil rights pilgrimage.
I was with him on what would be his final walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. And I will hold that memory forever in my heart.
I am sorry we couldn’t gather together in Selma this year. And I am sorry Congressman Lewis is no longer with us. I know we will all mourn and miss him every day.
But, friends, I am here to tell you that his spirit lives inside of all of us, and we know that. And the spirit of Selma lives in us.
You know, a month before the 1965 bridge crossing, a group of teachers—Black teachers—who taught their students about civics, but who couldn’t exercise their own right to vote—well, they took action. About a hundred teachers, union members, marching side by side, put their jobs on the line. Their paychecks. Their pensions.
They marched to the Dallas County Courthouse to register to vote. And after they were barred from entering, they returned where? Well of course, to Brown Chapel.
A few weeks later, the 100 teachers became 600 activists, marching across that bridge.
And a few weeks after that, 600 became 2,000, headed for Montgomery.
And by the time they got there, they were 50,000 strong.
And it wasn’t long before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law, helping millions of Americans exercise their right to vote.
I say this to remind us—all of us—of our own agency. Of our own ability to change the world.
You don’t need a lot of money or a million people. But you do need a righteous cause and a whole lot of resolve.
Friends, there is no cause more righteous than the right to vote.
It is the right that unlocks so many other rights. The right to be treated with dignity at work. The right to a high-quality public education.
The right to affordable healthcare—which couldn’t be more important in the middle of a pandemic that is stealing away Black lives at a devastating rate.
When we cast a ballot, we decide our leaders. When we cast a ballot, we determine our future.
The teachers of Selma, they knew that. John Lewis knew that.
And so did Diane Nash and C.T. Vivian, and Amelia Boynton Robinson, and Hosea Williams.
And so did my mother and father who marched for voting rights and civil rights in Oakland, California, while pushing me in a stroller.
We all know the power of the ballot. And we know, too, that efforts persist to take that power away.
Today, poll taxes have been traded for long voting lines. Property ownership restrictions for purges of voter rolls. Literacy tests for voter ID laws. Voter registration restrictions. Mail-in voting limitations. Cuts to early voting. Precinct closures. Gerrymandering.
It’s all voter suppression by any other name.
In 2013, the Voting Rights Act was gutted by the Supreme Court decision Shelby County v. Holder. That decision opened the floodgates.
Almost immediately, states put in place laws to discriminate and to create barriers to voting—targeted at people of color, targeted at Native Americans, targeted at students. And targeted at Black voters.
When one of these laws in North Carolina was challenged, the court said it targeted Black Americans “with almost surgical precision.” Those were the words of the court: “surgical precision.”
It has now been over 7 years since the Shelby decision, and the efforts to suppress have only increased.
We’re a little more than two months into 2021. And in early February of this year, more than 150 bills to restrict voting had already been introduced in more than 30 state legislatures.
That is four times as many as the same time last year.
So we have to tell the truth about these efforts: They are certainly not designed to protect our elections. They do not protect our democracy. And the only purpose they serve is to cut people out. To leave people out. To attempt to silence people.
Well, President Joe Biden and I want make sure we bring people in. That we see people, and that we hear them.
Even as our work to pass our American Rescue Plan gets under way, and while we get vaccines distributed across the country and deliver relief to those who are hurting from this pandemic, we have not taken our eye off the right to vote and the fight to maintain everyone’s right to vote.
Today, the President signed an executive order to leverage the resources of the federal government to make it easier for voters to register.
We urge the Senate to follow the House’s lead and pass the For the People Act, which includes measures like automatic voter registration that will help expand voting rights.
We also urge Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, to fully restore the Voting Rights Act for once and for all.
The American people want to vote. Have a right to vote. In fact, in the last election, more Americans voted than ever before.
Americans today want to vote for the same reason the Selma teachers marched to that courthouse: To have a say in their lives. To have a say in what happens to them, and the people in their community.
Because as citizens of this country, we all have a right to be heard and to have our vote count.
And our laws should make it easier—not more difficult—to exercise that right.
For me, it all comes down to that little bit of Scripture—that Golden Rule: “Love thy neighbor.”
Wearing a mask is loving thy neighbor. Getting vaccinated is loving thy neighbor. And voting is loving thy neighbor.
So let’s fight for the right to vote, knowing it is an extension of the love of our community and our country.
And that is the fight that unites us now. It is that fight that connects us to our past.
Knowing that history is a relay race—and what started with 100 teachers grew to tens of thousands of marchers, and then tens of millions of voters who cast a ballot last year.
The baton in that relay race is now in our hands. So let us remember, our cause is righteous. Our resolve is strong. Our spirit is mighty. So let us keep on in the tradition of Selma and John Lewis.
Thank you all, and may God bless you, and may God bless America.