SELMA, Ala. ― Less than three years after defeating Sen. Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton reunited with the Vermont independent and leading Democrats to deliver a passionate call for protecting voting rights in the face of Republican attacks.
Clinton was the honoree at the annual Martin and Coretta King Unity Breakfast, a major feature of the weekend-long “Bridge Crossing Jubilee” commemorating the “Bloody Sunday” march for voting rights across Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965. The original march, symbolically re-enacted every year, ultimately inspired the enactment of the Voting Rights Act, which ensured black voting rights in the South for the first time since Reconstruction.
Speaking in the gymnasium of George Wallace Community College, Clinton delivered a stinging indictment of Republican efforts to restrict voting that target black voters, particularly in the South, and called for a new movement to safeguard the franchise.
“We need, starting right now, here in Selma — once again — to redouble our efforts with a 21st-century civil rights movement devoted to claiming, enforcing and defending the right to vote — once and for all,” Clinton said.
Although Clinton has largely faded from public life since her 2016 election loss, she received a hero’s welcome as she ascended the stage to accept the jubilee program’s 2019 International Unity Award and induction into the Women’s Hall of Fame.
Hank Sanders and Faya Rose Touré, a married couple of Alabama civil rights attorneys, presented Clinton with a drawing of her, former President Bill Clinton and their daughter Chelsea marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Hank Sanders prompted massive applause from the audience when he declared that Clinton “was elected president of the United States, but it was stolen from her” by the FBI when it announced a last-minute reopening of the investigation into her emails, and by the Russian government. For her part, Touré introduced Clinton simply as “the president.”
In her remarks, which elicited a standing ovation, Clinton recalled her work investigating segregated schools in Alabama during an early 1970s stint at the Children’s Defense Fund, before pivoting to the injustices of the present. The former secretary of state did not need to look far for evidence that voting rights are under attack. She and other speakers argued that abuse of voting rules in Georgia deprived Democrat Stacey Abrams of a win in the state’s gubernatorial race in November.
“Stacey Abrams should be governor, leading the state right now,” Clinton declared, prompting applause from the predominantly black audience that had assembled to hear her speak.
As Georgia secretary of state, Brian Kemp, Abrams’ Republican opponent in the gubernatorial race, instituted a system that required an “exact match” between the name on voter registration forms and other government records. Mere days before the election, 53,000 voter registration applications remained on hold. Seventy percent of the stalled applications were for black voters, sparking widespread charges of racial discrimination.
Clinton also referenced the case of alleged pro-GOP election fraud in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District. Amid overwhelming evidence that an operative working on behalf of Republican Mark Harris illegally collected absentee ballots, the state election board called for a new election in February.
“The district is holding a special election, but it should never have happened in the first place,” Clinton said. “And we have to do everything we can to stand up and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
“Don’t you find it interesting that all the politicians who have argued for years for strict voter ID rules and limits on early voting that disproportionately affect low-income voters and voters of color have been curiously quiet about this North Carolina case?” she added.
Under the guise of policing “voter fraud,” many Republicans in the South have become increasingly brazen in their efforts to restrict voting since a 2013 Supreme Court decision striking down a provision of the Voting Rights Act that required states with histories of voting discrimination to obtain advance approval ― known as “pre-clearance” ― from the federal government for any changes to their voting rules.
At the time, Chief Justice John Roberts argued that historically racist Southern states had outgrown the need for federal supervision.
But reminders of the persistence of racism in American society are apparent in the primarily Republican efforts to suppress the franchise, and the legacy of more explicit discrimination looms large in the South.
For example, George Wallace Community College, where the unity breakfast took place, is named for the very segregationist governor who ordered state troopers to stop the “Bloody Sunday” marchers with brutal force in 1965. Years later, Wallace apologized for his actions, and in subsequent stints as governor, advocated the expansion of the state community college system that bears his name.
Even the Edmund Pettus Bridge carries the stench of Alabama’s long history of institutional racism. Pettus was a decorated Confederate general during the Civil War, who became a leader of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan.
Changes to Southern landmarks named for racist figures are likely not in the offing, but efforts to fix voting rights deficiencies are ramping up.
In the wake of their takeover of the House of Representatives in November, Democrats plan to pass legislation reinstating the key provision of the Voting Rights Act. The bill, authored by Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.) who represents Selma and spoke at Sunday’s breakfast, would restore pre-clearance requirements using a new formula that Sewell expects to apply to 11 states at the outset.
The bill is unlikely to pass the Republican-controlled Senate, but Democrats hope to force Republicans to go on record opposing the measure ahead of the 2020 presidential election.
In addition to Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) spoke on Sunday. Sanders and Booker are running for president; Brown is deciding whether to run.
Sanders left shortly after his speech; he has a campaign rally scheduled in Chicago in the evening. Booker and Brown stayed, walking at the head of the march across the Pettus bridge in the afternoon.
The trip carried special resonance for Sanders, who is making a highly visible effort to improve his performance with black voters. Across the South, including Alabama, Clinton trounced Sanders in 2016 thanks to the support of black Democrats, particularly those over the age of 30.
Sanders used his speech to call for automatic voter registration ― with a flash of his signature economic populism.
“The people who own America — the people who put hundreds of millions of dollars to elect candidates who represent the wealthy and the powerful — they know about the power of the vote,” Sanders said.
“It’s our turn to demand that we end all voter suppression in this country,” he continued to applause. “We not only end voter suppression, but we make it easier for people to vote, not harder.”
Several of the breakfast attendees who voted for Clinton in 2016 said that their decision had been rooted in an affinity for Clinton, rather than their dislike for Sanders.
Nate Brown, 56, a basketball coach and the artist who sketched the drawing presented to Clinton, said he would vote for Clinton again if she ran.
But this time around, he is seriously considering voting for Sanders. He cited Sanders’ commitment to improving the health care system to bring it in line with other countries.
“He just looks like the nutty professor, but he’s a cool guy. He makes good sense too — good sense,” Brown said.
JoAnn Bland, 65, a “foot soldier” ― or veteran of the “Bloody Sunday” march ― who leads guided tours of the region’s civil rights history, was apparently unaware that Sanders had formally entered the race. Bland said that she “kind of” liked Booker, but that if Sanders runs, “he may be my choice.”
Bland, who is also a military veteran, is drawn to Sanders’ support for tuition-free public college and other efforts aimed at expanding economic opportunity.
“I just need to know some other facts from him like, ‘How are you going to do this?’” she said.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story contained a tweet that said Clinton didn’t march. She joined the marchers later.