Bloody Sunday, the day state troopers attacked peaceful protesters marching in Selma, Ala., in an effort to gain voting rights, was 50 years ago this year, but Pulitzer Prize-winner Jon Meacham said it was just "the day before yesterday."
Meacham gave the inaugural Wendell H. Ford Public Policy Lecture at a University of Kentucky symposium called The Foundation of Democracy: Voting Rights Past, Present and Future on Tuesday night.
The lessons of the civil rights movement and the Voting Rights Act that came soon after Bloody Sunday "are still fresh" and applicable today, he said, as laws are still being passed to discourage voter turnout and complicate access to the voting booth.
Meacham, who serves as executive vice president and executive editor at Random House, is the author of a number of histories. After his lecture, Meacham participated in a panel discussion with Lt. Gov. Crit Luallen and former Washington Post reporter, columnist and editor Dorothy Gilliam.
Luallen pointed out several of Kentucky's achievements on the voting rights front, including being an early adopter of the secret ballot. But she said Kentucky still has work to do on "disenfranchisement" in regard to restoring voting rights for felons.
The group discussed barriers to voter participation, including what Luallen called "a sense on the part of many people that their voice doesn't matter."
Luallen pointed to the "inordinate amount of money" being spent on negative campaign ads that she said frustrate voters.
Meacham suggested that "a partisan press," particularly online, tends to affirm assumptions. He said fragmentation makes it difficult to build consensus among Americans.
And Gilliam said deeper issues such as the "mass incarceration" of black men have also led people to give up on the democratic process.
Gilliam and journalist and author Ari Berman kicked off the day-long symposium.
Berman said he wrote the book Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America because he began to see attempts to "restrict access to the ballot."
"Following the first black president in 2008, it seemed to me that these new laws were being introduced to make the electorate older, whiter and more conservative as opposed younger, more diverse and more progressive like it had been in 2008," Berman said. "And it seemed a clear attempt particularly to go after those voters who had supported President Obama so successfully."
Gilliam, 78, spoke about her experiences growing up in the South and her reporting on the Voting Rights Act.
"I lived this history, and I am very fortunate," Gilliam said.