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Voting rights march leaders honor the sacrifice made by foot soldiers killed during the civil rights era

By Nicquel Terry Ellis, CNN

When Medgar Evers and Jimmie Lee Jackson were killed amid a yearslong battle for voting rights, it brought a sense of doom and darkness over the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Evers, a NAACP field secretary and civil rights leader who organized voter registration drives, boycotts and protests against school segregation, was shot in the back by a White supremacist in his driveway in June 1963.

Jackson, a church deacon, was shot in the stomach by an Alabama State Trooper while trying to protect his mother during a march for voting rights in Marion, Alabama, in February 1965.

Despite the anger and grief in the wake of their deaths, the civil rights movement pressed forward, activists and protesters kept marching and in August 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, which prohibited racial discrimination in voting.

The leaders of today’s movement say they are carrying that same spirit of resilience as they lobby for Congress to pass federal voting legislation that would counter state-level laws they say are suppressing Black and brown voters.

On Saturday, the March on for Voting Rights will take place in Washington DC, Atlanta, Houston, Phoenix and Miami to put pressure on the Senate to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which increases the power of the federal government to block discriminatory election rules. The bill was passed in the House earlier this week but faces an uphill battle with the Senate given most Republicans oppose it.

But in a loss for Democrats on Friday, the Texas House approved a Republican voting restrictions bill after months of delays. Opponents warned that the bill would make voting harder for people of color, who often back Democrats, as well as disabled people — in part by outlawing the all-night and drive-through voting that Houston conducted during the 2020 election.

Saturday’s mass mobilization will mark the 58th anniversary of the historic March on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. That march came just two months after Evers’ death. An anniversary march was also held last year in Washington on the heels of nationwide protests following the death of George Floyd.

The March On for Voting Rights comes after the arrests this summer of several civil rights leaders and lawmakers protesting voter suppression. Among them were Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rev. William J. Barber II, Cliff Albright, Rep. Hank Johnson and Rep. Joyce Beatty.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, who is helping lead Saturday’s march, said the deaths of Jimmie Lee Jackson and Evers taught many that the road to equality is never easy. A few weeks after Jackson was killed in 1965, John Lewis was beaten by White police officers so badly that he suffered a broken skull during “Bloody Sunday.” Lewis and others marched for voting rights across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.

“It’s always been darkness before light broke through,” Sharpton said. “We come out of that tradition.”

A persistent fight

Civil rights icon Andrew Young said Jimmie Lee Jackson’s death was actually the breaking point that led to the Selma march. Jackson, who had just returned from Vietnam, was attending his first march in Marion, Alabama with his mother and grandfather when he was shot trying to shield his mother from being beaten.

Young recalled marching six miles in the freezing rain with other leaders from Jackson’s funeral at a local church to the cemetery. Frustrated with Jackson’s death, they began planning their next move: they were going to march from Selma to Montgomery to demand voting rights.

Violence from police and White supremacists would never stop their fight, Young said.

“If somebody gets killed doing something right you have to send people there to take their place,” Young said. “Because if you don’t, you send the message that all you have to do to stop us is to kill someone.”

Mary Marcus, a friend of Jimmie Lee Jackson’s family, said Jackson wasn’t a vocal civil rights leader. He was a quiet man who mostly supported the movement behind the scenes, including taking his mother and grandfather to the march the day he was shot. Young said Jackson occasionally volunteered with voter registration efforts.

Marcus said she hopes today’s activists understand the battle for equality often requires sacrifice from more than just civil rights leaders, but also the foot soldiers in the background.

“His (Jackson’s) role was supporting those who supported the movement,” said Marcus, 62 of Marion. “As a result of that when it was his turn to go to the rescue of someone else, he did. As a result of that he lost his life.”

A historic victory

Months after Jimmie Lee Jackson was slain and the Selma march happened, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and Johnson signed it.

Young recalled going to the White House with Martin Luther King Jr. to meet with Johnson who insisted he did not have enough votes from Congress to get the bill passed.

But Selma, Young said, influenced public opinion of voting rights and prompted lawmakers to support the bill. He believes today’s activist’s can learn from the power of their organizing.

“We riled up the nation,” Young said. “That persuaded the citizens that voting rights needed to be protected and that gave the president the power.”

Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was hospitalized last week for Covid-19, said in a statement that he will not be attending the march Saturday and is still receiving medical care.

Jackson urged the nation to march whether in DC or at a local demonstration and pressure Congress to pass federal voting bills. He said the right to vote is key to jobs, raising minimum wage, criminal justice reform, expanded health care and improving public education.

“So we want everybody to put on your marching shoes, and keep them on until everyone’s right to vote is protected,” Jackson said. “Keep marching and keep hope alive.”

Martin Luther King III, King Jr.’s eldest son who is also leading Saturday’s march, said he has seen fervor in the demonstrators who rallied across the country after Floyd’s death and showed up at last year’s anniversary march.

And while the 1963 March on Washington ultimately led to key voting rights legislation — one of its top demands in addition to jobs and civil rights — voter suppression efforts in recent years have been a setback, King said.

Many of the tactics being used to disenfranchise Black and brown voters are “a more sophisticated form of Jim Crow,” King said.

King said he hopes the Saturday march sends the message that there is an urgency to rally around voting rights. He called it “frightening” that state legislatures are enacting laws that give them control over election outcomes.

“We are not going to just sit by idle and allow our rights to be eroded,” King said. “My hope is that the community understands this is enough. We’re not going to give up. “

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