Fifty years ago this past weekend, our brothers and sisters marched arm-in-arm, attempting to cross that fateful bridge in Selma, Ala., to stand against racial injustice and demand voting rights protections.
For this effort these brave men and women, dedicated to the principles of nonviolence, were beaten and bloodied by waves of state troopers and police.
Their tactics of nonviolent civil disobedience brought into sharp relief this violence and oppression, igniting the moral outrage of a nation. Thousands descended on Selma in the weeks following Bloody Sunday and, arm-in-arm, finally passed over that fateful bridge and marched on toward Montgomery. Marched on, toward the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
But the right to vote — the most fundamental of rights for a thriving democracy — is systematically denied to a quarter-million members of this commonwealth. Kentucky is one of only three states that does not restore voting rights to citizens returning from incarceration, citizens who have paid their debt to society and are attempting to rebuild their lives.
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This was no accident. Passed in the decades following the Civil War, the laws disenfranchising former felons were part and parcel of Jim Crow-era measures designed to subjugate and oppress our black brothers and sisters.
Over one-fifth of our black brothers and sisters, our fellow Kentuckians, cannot vote due to this form of institutionalized racism. They have been abandoned on that bridge in Selma.
Courageous individuals have been working over the past decade to right this grave injustice. By attempting to bring a constitutional amendment to a vote of the people, they have hoped to give every Kentuckian a means by which to step back onto that bridge, to embrace with loving arms those we've abandoned.
Year after year, however, these valiant efforts are systematically blocked in the Senate's State and Local Government Committee. The ego of the exceptionally few, and the passivity of the startling many, have allowed this injustice to drag its ugly head into the 21st century. Injustice prevails when good senators remain silent.
It is morally outrageous that we both, as individuals, are able to exercise our voting rights while so many of our friends cannot. It is for this reason that we locked arms before the last Senate committee meeting of this legislative cycle and attempted to respectfully call on the moral sensibilities of the senators to pass House Bill 70, before being dragged, singing, by state troopers from the room.
As we sang that old civil rights anthem, sung on that fateful bridge so long ago, we could only think of our friends. "Hold on..."
Mantell Stevens, who works himself weary, 80 hours a week, trying to make ends meet. Active in his community, giving back in so many positive ways, he doesn't have the right to vote. "Hold on..."
April Browning, whose only wish was to show her son what it meant to be a good citizen by voting. April suddenly, tragically, passed away last year before ever getting that chance. "Keep your eyes on the prize, Hold on."
For April, for Mantell, for hundreds of thousands, we have held on too long. We will not allow our brothers and sisters to be stranded on that bridge any longer. Civil disobedience is not a tactic of choice, it is one of necessity. When all the "official" avenues are closed to us, when the passive powers that be are too timid to stand for what is right, then the only option we have is to take extraordinary measures.
What Selma, the civil rights movement, what every great struggle for dignity and justice has taught us is that we don't have to stand against injustice alone. Indeed, if we are to succeed, we must lock arms and work together.
The Kentucky Senate — and all Kentuckians — face a choice. Will we honor the legacy of that brave struggle for freedom and democracy by passing the constitutional amendment next legislative session? Or will we continue to stand on the wrong side of history?
This is a call to action.