Mr. President, next week the nation will celebrate the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” when we commemorate the series of marches of non-violent civil rights protestors from Selma to Montgomery, the Alabama state capitol. They were marching for the right to vote, which had been guaranteed by the adoption of the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1870. The first section of the amendment reads: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
These marches gripped the attention of the nation because of the violent reactions from the Alabama state troopers, who attacked the marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge after leaving Selma. The state troopers used billy clubs, tear gas, fire hoses, and dogs, and numerous marchers were wounded and beaten unconscious.
The images shown on television galvanized the American public to advocate for voting rights. President Lyndon Johnson called on Congress to enact voting rights legislation, and make good on the Fifteenth Amendment and the responsibility of Congress to enforce the amendment “by appropriate legislation.”
One of those protestors beaten on the bridge was a Freedom Rider, speaker at the March on Washington, and a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. That protestor was John Lewis.
I was honored and privileged to enter Congress in 1987, the same year as Congressman Lewis. John has been a friend and mentor of mine for many years, and is known as the “conscience of the Congress.” While I left the House in 2006, I have continued to be inspired by Congressman Lewis and his continuing fight for equality: to ensure that all Americans enjoy the benefits of equal justice under the law.
Just last week, during Black History Month, Congressman Lewis and I had the honor of addressing a group of students from Baltimore that took their own pilgrimage to Selma, as the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday loomed ahead.
High school students and teachers from Park School, Baltimore City College High School, City Neighbors High School, and Cristo Rey Jesuit High School participated in a trip to southern cities including Greensboro, Atlanta, Selma, Little Rock, Memphis, and the Mississippi Delta region—landmark, historical sites that focused on the civil rights movement.
I want to share some of the stories that the students told me and Congressman Lewis last week, because their idealism, determination, and historical knowledge is really inspirational.
Let me begin with a brief history of how this trip came into being. In 2004, the first group of students and faculty from the Park School of Baltimore, and Baltimore City College High School, traveled throughout the American South. They met with participants in the Civil Rights Movement, and toured the museums, sites, and memorials that commemorated the Movement’s heroes. The trip was the brainchild, and ultimate dream, of three Park School faculty members: Carol Kinne, Traci Wright, and Stradine Harris. They envisioned young people from different schools and disparate backgrounds learning together, and becoming inspired to be agents of change upon their return.
Money to cover the expenses of the trip is raised each year by the students. They engage in a wide range of activities to cover funding, from selling pizza and candy to raking leaves and writing grant proposals.
While learning about the Civil Rights Movement is the primary objective of the trip, it is equally important to inspire students to raise awareness of civil rights issues that people continue to face today, and to become activists for justice in their own communities.
In 2015, four Baltimore schools (City Neighbors and Cristo Rey having joined the original two) sent 38 students on the trip.
The January 2015 trip was a special one, as the group had the chance to meet with Former Ambassador Andrew Young in Atlanta, and to attend an event for the movie Selma that took place on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, in honor of the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday.
The group also visited the International Civil Rights Center in Greensboro, North Carolina; attended a church service at Ebenezer Baptist Church; toured the Rosa Parks Museum; met with activists at the Equal Justice Initiative and the Southern Poverty Law Center; and learned about the Movement in other museums in Birmingham, Memphis, and Little Rock. More importantly, the group was able to meet and learn from people who actively fought for change: Cleopatra Goree, Catherine Burks-Brooks, Kurt Carrington, Roscoe Jones, Dr. Sybil Hampton and others.
Let me share just a few of the many stories from students who went on this trip, as related in their blog:
Amber Smiley, a 12th grader at Cristo Rey, wrote:
“Across from the museum was this statue of people being attacked by dogs and hit with high amounts of pressured water. In these statues you could see the emotion in every one of them. You could see the fit and the drive to make changes. After leaving we had lunch with 3 women that marched, taught, and fought for rights. The women’s names are Ms. Cleopatra Goree, Ms. Catherine Burks-Brooks, and Ms. Mimes. Each one of their stories varied but all built up to the bigger theme that we have to strive to make the world better. These words stuck with me like glue on two pieces of paper. Also, they said it’s our turn to make a change its make thing about how can each school community to come and make a change in Baltimore. These women impacted my life and the whole group to change the injustices in our world. I was really honored to have them come and give us these points of views and life stories. It was really a blessing.”
Latonyah Williams is also a 12th grader; she attends City Neighbors. She wrote:
“At the Little Rock Central visitor center, I found a quote that immediately grabbed my attention as I walked through the doors. It goes “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?”
— John Lewis. It grabbed at me because it shows the mindset behind how the leaders were thinking back when they were fighting for our rights. They weren’t thinking of themselves or their lives, but of the future and the many generations to come. So now I want to have the mindset of if not me, then who will take a stand? If not now, then most likely it will not ever happen.”
I am confident that this trip continues to impact students long after they return to Baltimore.
Today, while we recognize the achievements and accomplishments of heroes like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Thurgood Marshall, and John Lewis, we cannot shy away from the painful history of race relations in our country.
To do so would be a disservice to all those who struggled and sacrificed their lives in the name of equality.
Slavery and segregation were dark and painful chapters in American history, yet we practiced bigotry and injustice in our state of Maryland, and throughout the rest of our country.
In our day and age, it becomes increasingly more critical to confront the issue of racial profiling—the practice of discriminatory profiling based on race, ethnicity, religion or any other stereotype. It must be be addressed from its root causes.
This is why I ask, and will continue to ask: how many more cases like Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner must we have? How many more families will have to suffer until we get this right?
It has been heartbreaking to see several other American towns—from Ferguson, Missouri to New York City—gripped by tragedies that resulted from racial profiling.
Eighteen-year old Michael Brown was just days away from starting his first college classes, yet he no longer has the chance to pursue his dreams.
These events have spurred me to introduce the End Racial Profiling Act in the Senate. This legislation is a critical step towards ensuring equal treatment of all people under the law.
Racial profiling is un-American. It has no place within the values of our country. It turns communities against the partnerships needed to keep our neighborhoods safe.
Racial profiling is defined as the practice of a law enforcement agent relying on race, ethnicity, religion, or national origin as a factor in their investigations and activities.
The legislation I have introduced creates an exception for the use of these factors in cases where there is trustworthy information, relevant to the locality and time frame, which links persons of a particular race, ethnicity, or national origin to an identified incident or scheme.
Law enforcement agencies would be strictly prohibited from using racial profiling in criminal or routine law enforcement investigations, immigration enforcement, and national security cases.
My bill is supported by a broad coalition of civil rights groups, including the NAACP, Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Human Rights Working Group, ACLU, and numerous other national, state, and local organizations.
While some may predict further Congressional gridlock and political polarization, I firmly believe that we will find ways to work together on the issues most important to the American public—and create cooperation and compromise with regard to civil and human rights.
Congress overwhelmingly reauthorized the Voting Rights Act in 2006, after a compelling case was made for the continued need to protect minority voters from discrimination.
As much as we wish it were not so, racism has not disappeared from America, and there continue to be individuals and groups who would use our voting system to deliberately minimize the rights of minority voters. Congress should further act to revitalize the Voting Rights Act.
Protecting the right to vote also extends to restoring the rights of nearly four million Americans across the country who have been released from prison, but are barred from the voting booths—often disenfranchised for life. I have been leading the fight for the Democracy Restoration Act, which would restore voting rights to individuals after they have served their time and been released from incarceration, back into their communities.
If we truly want to break the cycle of recidivism, we need to reintegrate former prisoners back into society.
When prisoners are released, they are expected to obey the law, get a job, and pay taxes as they rehabilitate.
With the responsibilities and obligations of citizenship should also come the rights of citizenship, including the right to vote.
The current patchwork of state laws results in the lack of a uniform standard for eligibility to vote in Federal elections.
I believe that Congress should take strong action now to remedy this problem, and enact a nationwide standard for restoration of voting rights.
As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” let us continue the march for justice for all Americans. I urge Congress to address the issues of voting rights and racial profiling during this session.