2005 Civil Rights Remembrance Is Biggest Yet

Posted February 15, 2005 at 6:23pm

In commemoration of the 40th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” and the voting rights march of 1965, Georgia Rep. John Lewis (D) will lead the largest Congressional delegation to date to visit key Alabama landmarks of the civil rights movement next month.

This is the seventh year that the nonpartisan Faith and Politics Institute has sponsored the Congressional civil rights pilgrimage, which will include stops in Birmingham, Montgomery and Selma, where the group will re-enact the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

It was there, on Sunday, March 7, 1965, that Lewis, a key figure in the civil rights movement, suffered a fractured skull when state troopers beat back a group of pro-voting rights demonstrators as they attempted to peacefully cross en route to Montgomery on what has become known as “Bloody Sunday.” Two weeks later, Martin Luther King Jr. led thousands of marchers across the bridge to Montgomery. And in August of that year, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act, making discriminatory tests at polling places illegal. Portions of that act are due for renewal in 2007.

To mark the double anniversary, Lewis said, the discussion this year will focus on the political aspects of the act’s initial passage and its continuing significance today. A panel including Johnson’s daughter Lynda Johnson Robb and former Johnson aide Jack Valenti will discuss the politics of both the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Lewis also said he hopes to use the trip to discuss with Members “the best way to move forward” when it comes to ensuring that these rights are protected.

Separately, the Georgia Democrat tied the renewal of aspects of the Voting Rights Act to ongoing efforts to implement nationwide election standards.

“It’s not equal protection under the law,” he said.

In addition to Lewis, this year’s trip will be led by honorary co-chairmen: Sens. George Allen (R-Va.) and Jon Corzine (D-N.J.), House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.).

At a briefing Tuesday, Allen said that current U.S. efforts to promote democracy in Iraq are directly linked to the legislative reforms the U.S. government implemented four decades ago.

“If we still had the policies of 40 years ago no one would look at the U.S. as a credible country to advance the causes of freedom,” Allen said. He later said he supports both the renewal of the Voting Rights Act and making it “applied to the whole country.” (Certain sections of the act apply only to those areas where there is a past history of discrimination.)

The three-day event, which runs March 4-6, has typically attracted more Democrats than Republicans, and this year is not expected to be an exception, said Faith and Politics Institute spokesman Grant Rissler.

Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who, along with Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) in 2003, was one of the first two Senators to attend, said the traditional disparity between Democrats and Republicans was likely due to the importance of the 1960s and the civil rights movement in shaping the political views of many Democrats his age. Republican Members, such as Allen, countered that a finalized list was “not yet determined” and pledged to continue outreach to both GOP and Democratic colleagues.

This year, the institute is not releasing the list of Members attending prior to the trip due to concerns about last-minute changes in Members’ schedules. However, both Senate Majority Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) are expected to attend parts of the pilgrimage.

Since 2002, the trip has not been held in election years, but with Frist’s initiation a special Senate pilgrimage was convened in February 2004 with a modified schedule. That proved to be one of the rare times Republicans outnumbered Democrats.

First held in 1998, the trip has never been a forum for mere “righteous indignation,” said W. Douglas Tanner, the institute’s president. Indeed, on that inaugural journey a group of Members met with former Alabama Gov. George Wallace — the very man responsible for sending out the state troopers to confront Lewis and other marchers.