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Selma at 50: How do we become a more representative democracy?

March 4, 2015

By Jeremy Quattlebaum, Student Voices staff writer

“Let us march on ballot boxes, march on ballot boxes until race-baiters disappear from the political arena. Let us march on ballot boxes until the salient misdeeds of bloodthirsty mobs will be transformed into the calculated good deeds of orderly citizens.”

– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., March 25, 1965

When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. went to Selma, Ala., 50 years ago, he was at the forefront of a nonviolent revolution that was drastically changing American society. Piece by piece, the institutions of the Jim Crow South were being dismantled. Laws that were used to segregate African Americans were beginning to be repealed in the courts and in the federal government.

Segregation as a government policy was found to be unconstitutional in the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education (1954), but the law was not being enforced. In 1957, efforts to desegregate the schools in Little Rock, Ark., led to confrontations between state officials and the federal government. President Dwight Eisenhower eventually ordered federal troops to protect nine African American students who were enrolled at Central High School. Following the confrontation, the Supreme Court ruled in Cooper v. Aaron (1958) that states must comply with its ruling that school segregation was unconstitutional.

The Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama in 1955 led to the desegregation of buses and public transportation. After the arrest of Rosa Parks, an African American woman who refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger, King led a 381-day boycott of the city’s public transportation system that ended when the U.S. Supreme Court said the city’s bus segregation laws were unconstitutional.

In Birmingham, Ala., in 1963, civil rights activists, adults and children, faced police beatings and attacks from police dogs and water cannons during mass protests. National TV coverage of the violence led to Congress passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which made segregation and discriminatory hiring practices illegal.

In Selma, Ala., the civil rights movement focused on another obstacle for African Americans: the right to vote. A series of marches took place amid a voter registration drive that was marked by police violence. On March 7, several hundred marchers were viciously attacked by state troopers and sheriff’s deputies at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. National TV coverage of the brutality sparked outrage. King led a second march to the bridge on March 9. Then on March 21, thousands of people – clergy, college students, activists – from across the country gathered to march from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery. A few months later, in August, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act.

Why is the right to vote so important? Voting is about more than casting a ballot. It is about shaping the government and allowing the nation to move closer to the ideals of the Founding Fathers, a representative democracy. Voting is a right for nearly all adult Americans. The 15th, 19th and 26th Amendments gave voting rights to African American men, women, and young people between the ages of 18 and 21, respectively.

Elections and voter registration, on the other hand, are left to the local and state governments. In the South, before 1965, many states had some form of voter disenfranchisement, meaning that they had laws that prevented some people from registering to vote. These laws, which targeted African Americans, included poll taxes, literacy tests and voucher systems, where a registered voter had to vouch for a potential voter so that person could submit a registration form.

Politicians are held to the consent and will of their constituents. If elected officials enact laws that harm a majority of voters, they probably will not win reelection. By keeping a large minority away from the ballot boxes, their voice in a democracy is muted. The policies that harm them can continue without the elected officials fearing the loss of their jobs.

Voter registration also means becoming eligible for jury service. Juries are selected from the pool of registered voters. If African Americans couldn’t register to vote, then they couldn’t serve on juries, meaning African American defendants were not allowed a jury of their peers.

So when people registered to vote, it was not just getting to elect government leaders. It was about having their constitutional rights protected. It was about seeing faces like their own in the jury box. It was about seeing an end to the laws that aimed to keep a large percentage of the population oppressed. It was about moving closer to the ideal of a government that represents everyone in the society, not just the loudest or the ones who traditionally held the power.

As the 50th anniversary of the march from Selma to Montgomery approaches, the nation still faces civil rights issues.

Police Departments

The highly publicized deaths of unarmed African Americans by police in Missouri, New York and Ohio were reminders that not all aspects of government have been fully integrated. The Washington Post reports that over 40 percent of cities have police forces in which African Americans are underrepresented.

FBI Director James Coney said in a recent speech about race relations and law enforcement that racial biases are a problem in law enforcement and that police forces must represent the populations that they serve. When police forces mirror their communities, incidences of disproportionate uses of force based on race are reduced, and the trust between the public and the police is strengthened.

Citing the political forces that led to changes in the racial makeup of police forces in larger cities, Richard Ugelow, a longtime civil rights lawyer in the Department of Justice, said in a Washington Post interview: “Politicians realized that they couldn’t have an all-white police force in a city with a substantial minority population. That changed the culture of the police departments and the willingness of law enforcement, police and fire departments to become more diverse. You see that in Chicago, New York, Atlanta, in these large cities. They want to have a diverse workforce.”

But, Ugelow said, “You don’t have those same pressures in these smaller communities.” For example, in Niagara Falls, N.Y., the city’s population is 20 percent African American but the 250 police officers are all white. Ugelow doesn’t believe it’s a matter of intentional discrimination. He said small police forces may not have updated policies that effectively excluded minorities or were forced by budget problems to cut programs that addressed the issue.


Veterans have been fighting for the health care and resources promised when they joined the military service. Veterans hospitals around the country have been criticized for the long waits for treatment. An internal Veterans Affairs investigation in 2014 found that more than 120,000 veterans either waited at least 90 days for medical care or never got an appointment after making a request.

In addition to physical problems, mental health issues like post-traumatic stress disorder affect veterans. Mental health resources through the Department of Veterans Affairs are often hard to come by or not available, according to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. An average of 22 veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars commit suicide every day, highlighting the need for better access to mental health care, according to a 2012 VA report.

“Far too often, we’re leaving our veterans to fight their toughest battles alone,” former Sen. John Walsh of Montana, an Iraq War veteran, told CNN. “Returning home from combat does not erase what happened there, and yet red tape and government dysfunction have blocked access to the care that saves lives.”


Access to quality education in primary school, secondary school or higher education has increasingly become a challenge for poor students and students of color, according to the Education Commission of the States. The nonpartisan commission says the average Hispanic or African American student has the same education achievement as the lowest quarter of white students.

Dropout rates for minorities and poor students are also higher than those of their white counterparts. African American males and Latino females are at the greatest risk for dropping out, reports the National Center for Education Statistics. Dropping out of school can mean lower wages and less access to higher paying jobs. The center reported that a high school dropout will earn $630,000 less over a lifetime compared to someone who has a high school degree.

The need for a college degree has become increasingly important for higher paying jobs, but the cost has risen dramatically. Students who borrow to pay tuition graduate with an average of $30,000 in debt. The price tag of a college education can be shocking to low-income families. They might be turned off to the idea of higher education when they see how much debt they will have, especially when the economy is struggling and the chances of finding a job after college aren’t certain, reports the Department of Education. This means that lower-income individuals are less likely to attend and graduate from college. The department says the likelihood of a lower-income student to graduate from high school and then college is only 9 percent.

“Let us march on poverty (Let us march) until no American parent has to skip a meal so that their children may eat. (Yes, sir) March on poverty (Let us march) until no starved man walks the streets of our cities and towns (Yes, sir) in search of jobs that do not exist. (Yes, sir) Let us march on poverty (Let us march) until wrinkled stomachs in Mississippi are filled, (That’s right) and the idle industries of Appalachia are realized and revitalized, and broken lives in sweltering ghettos are mended and remolded.”

– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., March 25, 1965

What do you think?

What are the civil rights issues of today? How can the nation become a more representative democracy? How should police forces address diversity in their ranks? Has the government violated veterans’ civil rights by failing to provide promised medical benefits? How should disparities in the education system be fixed? Join the discussion and let us know what you think!
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murrieta ca
Mr. Jabro/ creekside
I believe that 50 years from Selma, that the public view have gone a long way. Some may argue too much, but some may argue not enough. On some things, I believe that it has gone to far, but on some thing I don't believe enough. I believe that the 'Black lives matter"thing is one of those things that are to far. I believe all lives matter and something that is still in the process of healing shouldn't be re-opened with another controversial subject like this. I am Native American, Sioux and Pawnee to be exact and many of my people have been slaughtered and moved off the land from where we came, and we don't say all cops and whites need t die or we don't matter. I understand that those feelings may feel pressured at some point, but to become a representative democracy, we need to learn to heal just like the Native Americans before have tired to do so, and just like races through out time have learned to as well.

Washington, NJ
Steven Monahan
Over the past 50 years our country has become far less of a representative democracy than what it was before. With population expanding and PACS simplifying legislation to our elected senators the legislative process has been watered down and put into the power of the few. Before the expansion of our country to such a vast point, congressman had enough time to read and comprehend the legislation, but now that so much is going on the reliance on paid off Super PAC's and donors cause for a more corrupt legislative process. To fix this and make our country more representative it is crucial that term limits are created to limit the length of terms for house and congress members. This would in turn prevent the long-term buyout of certain elected representatives from lobbyists, cooperations, and/or PACs.It would also be beneficial to create a page in the newspaper dedicated to showing platforms in a well-outlined form for both candidates. This is important to inform the voters so they are capable of accurately participating in American politics rather than fabricating their opinions on media that just like long-term candidates, are misty bought and paid for.

Our nation can become a more representative democracy by encouraging voters to explore every aspect of their rights; Getting the people informed of what they can and cannot do will enlarge the pool of Americans actively participating in their own government. Eliminating roadblocks for those that don’t votet can also be a step in the right direction. Diversifying the police force with African Americans, Hispanics, Asian americans, Pacific Islanders, American Indians and women would reduce the number of idiotic claims to “racism in the police force”. I think that the government has violated veterans’ civil rights by failing to provide promised medical benefits as the Iraq War veteran told on CNN, “ Returning home from combat does not erase what happened there”, they can never forget what they have seen in their life which can always affect their health and by failing to provide them medical benefits government is risking their lives as they said, “ an average of 22 veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan War commit suicide every day”. I think government should provide more grants to those who can not afford to pay and go to college.

The Civil rights issue of today is primarily gay marriage. Going along with what was mentioned in the article, integrating more gays into politics could allow for more Americans to better accept the movement. Once gay actors and entertainers became prominent in the media, sentiments surrounding the began to change positively, so I would imagine having gay politicians would be the next step. Regarding black representation in the police force, I doubt that more black officers is the way to go. There have been several black officers who have killed unarmed civilians but I could see how having better representation of a race,group,sexual orientation, etc could make people feel more comfortable. The American government has failed it's troops being that they are the ones who brought them into those debilitating situations in the first place. As for education, I feel that more emphasis on Academics should be placed and less on race,wealth,status,etc. College should ultimately be free but that won't happen in America anytime soon so I would say more academic based scholarships should be given out.

Still this day we are having the same civil rights issues that took place years ago. No one is stepping up and taking action on the situations that we thought that were now over. By policemen not going by the laws they should follow they are to do whatever they want. As believing "blacks" and "whites" are to be segregated-we have so much hatred towards one another that we can't seem to see that we all have different school. It's majority of the government fault, bu not making any complaints. Veterans should seek medical attention first. These are people who have fought for our lives and freedom. Civil rights are being violated just because of the simple fact they're are seen as if they're automatically due to of jobs and the color of our skin. While being taught educational they need to learn we are all the same but have a job they're preparing for the "real word." Teach them in school doesn't that respect-warn them they're seriously mad people that "black" people will always remain racist.

The civil rights issues of today, are the same issues that took place in the mid 1900’s, which was dealing with equality. Unfortunately, there are still problems regarding equality today, such as women and in some cases colored people in the workforce. In the workforce, there are still equality issues which holds back many women within the workforce. Also concerning the veterans that were never given the medical benefits which was promised by the government, seems to be a failure on the government's part, not an issue with civil rights. The government has failed to keep its promise to attend to the veterans that survived throughout the wars. Which I believe an new policy must be made for that to never happen again. Also for segregated education system with different cultural diverse students, all the teachers should have the same plan, with their own approved teaching habits, to teach the students so there won’t be any gaps between colored students, and white students.

Arlington, Texas
Mr. White/Sam Houston
First of all, our government is a representative REPUBLIC. It is NOT a representative democracy.Democracies are just short of mob rule whereas the republic spreads equal representation among the people via calculating the population and then having delegates and electoral colleges that increase or decrease in relation to that population. That gives balanced representation of large numbers of individuals in one area with another area with much less or more individuals needing to be represented also. We don't want to be more of a representative democracy than we have already slipped into. The Constitution and how it and the BIll of Rights is written and constructed so beautifully and wisely, it is a shame so many fail to grasp how it is NOT a living document and was written very specifically to prevent ease of changing its construction. Dr. King was a great man who was feared by the gov't.Here was a black man able to call together crowds of 50K and more everywhere he went.His vision and desire and abilities to unite the people was disliked by the elected and appointed authority figures. Today we have a president who has destroyed all the good work done in race relations by always trying to create frictions and tensions between the races through his actions, speeches, talks, comments, nominations, executive orders etc.

To address how police should handle diversity in their rank first, I think just the house of representatives try to get somebody of the same race to represent the majority of the people in the area the police should try and do the same. This would help stop certain race filled events like the shooting in Ferguson from blowing up and just causing more trouble. Not necessarily eliminating minority officers but have a greater representation in the police force I believe would ease tensions between the people.

Brian Vigen
The primary civil rights issues today lie in two main conflicts: gay marriage and racial profiling by police officers. Focusing on the latter, we’ve all seen the news, Walter Scott, Eric Harris, and many more killed unjustly due to purported racial profiling. In the case of Walter Scott, the police force of his city is 77% white, despite the demographic of North Charleston being 45% white, with a 44% black population, yet holding a mere 18% of the demographic of the NC police force. To become more diverse, more fair, the police force, and the representation, should keep the same demographic ratio to its population--that is proper representation. This small fix could prevent incidents that plague American culture. Also, not providing enough health services for veterans undermines the legitimacy of American liberty. It is the American government’s fault by causing soldiers to become injured or mentally unstable; therefore, it is the American government’s obligation to ameliorate the hurt they caused. Lastly, disparities in diversity among college selection should go as follows: applicants should be selected on knowledge in context of the opportunities they have received, (of course there should be a miminum requirement in intelligence). What I mean by this is that acceptance should be granted to those to do the most with what they are given. Anyone can be born into wealth, regardless of race.

To address how police should handle diversity in there rank first, i think just the house of representatives try to get somebody of the same race to represent the majority of the people in the area the police should try and do the same. this would Help stop certain race filled events like the shooting in Ferguson from blowing up and just causing more trouble. Not necessarily eliminating minority officers but having a greater representation in the police force i believe would ease tensions between the people.

It is no secret that America has some … “reconstruction” it needs to undergo about civil rights issues. Women’s rights, immigration reformation, and all other disputes regarding equality for groups that don’t fit the norms. Our nation is fragmented, misrepresented, and self righteous. To reverse this, America needs to show portrayals of all types of Americans, hear their plights, and formulate solutions to their dilemmas. Women, people of color, and others with disadvantages need to be compensated for their struggles and treated like those who founded our nation. Police forces need to address diversity by appearing less discriminative. In some eyes, it's difficult to enforce a system that is believed to reprimand others based on race or social classes. The law needs to be enforced at the same level to all those it encounters and accepting to all those who want to serve justice. The government has failed to aiding veterans with promised benefits, such as medical assistance. America should provide free healthcare to all of its people because health is a right. But if the US government can't shell out what is promised, even to those who are revered as our nation's heroes, then what does that say about us as a country? We need to honor our commitments, whether that be across the sea with a foreign government or right here, in our own backyard. Disparity in the education system is a hot topic, it is too difficult of an issue to simply just propose a solution. I can only contribute by saying that the education system needs to stop being built upon competition and reaching a certain quota to receive funding, and become a system that truly leaves no child left behind by making sure each student understands the material rather than overwhelm them with information. There are several issues that need to be fixed and it all starts with civil rights.

The civil rights issues of today are Women’s struggle for Equality, Americans with disabilities, and Immigrants rights. Nation can become a more representative democracy by making people aware of their voting rights and by trying to solve the problems which prevent people to go and vote such as voter suppression. To address diversity in their ranks the police forces should encourage African Americans, Hispanics, Asian americans, Pacific Islanders, American Indians and women to become officers.I think that the government has violated veterans’ civil rights by failing to provide promised medical benefits as the Iraq War veteran told on CNN, “ Returning home from combat does not erase what happened there”, they can never forget what they have seen in their life which can always affect their health and by failing to provide them medical benefits government is risking their lives as they said, “ an average of 22 veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan War commit suicide every day”. I think government should provide more grants to those who can not afford to pay and go to college.

The civil rights issues of today, in my opinion, all focus on a undertone of history not disappearing quite yet. A lot of people today are well over 50 years old and have lived through the times before everyone was “equal” and still feel even 50 years later they’re not completely equal. Technically, everyone is equal, but in legal terms. Not everyone has that equality set in their minds, or do so unintentionally and have prejudice in their actions. The nation can become more of a representative Democracy by encouraging everyone to vote. We could possibly bring voting closer to everyone, so there was no limitation on finding a way to reach the polls based on transportation. It all centers on giving everyone a reason to vote: who they should vote for and why they should participate in our political system. I guess a lot of people feel like it’s just their one vote, and it wouldn't make a difference with everyone else voting against them; we should encourage them to say their voice is being heard. Police forces should address diversity in their ranks by encouraging those in their communities to step up and represent their individual little groups; I’m sure if they knew they could reflect their towns they would most definitely want to have some kind of power to enforce the law for everyone. I believe that the government has violated veterans’ civil rights by failing to provide promised medical benefits, but to an extent. It’s not that veterans are being neglected, it’s just no one knows how serious their circumstances are and put them on the back burner. Now, the disparities of the education system could be fixed by encouraging students to go to school and earn a degree to make more money over their lifetime; if they knew they could make more with a degree, they would be more willing to further their education. I don’t think it’s much of a race issue but rather a financial issue for many. We are all capable of succeeding, it’s just the price tag that intimidates of us.

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