Last weekend, President Obama joined thousands of Americans — elected officials and ordinary neighbors — to commemorate the 50th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday," when Alabama state troopers and local law enforcement officers ambushed peaceful marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.
All were there to honor the perseverance, the courage, the determination, the principles, the sheer bravery of marchers who were attacked and beaten by frenzied law enforcement officers for the offense of demanding the right to vote in Alabama, a right guaranteed by the Constitution.
That one notoriously violent incident is credited with giving the 1965 Voting Rights Act the impetus it needed to pass Congress. It's no doubt true that without that march, the Voting Rights Act might not have passed, at least not in 1965.
But for all the bravery and determination of those peaceful marchers, it was not they but the other side that deserves credit for making the Voting Rights Act "must pass" legislation. It was the state troopers and local police who made the greatest impression on members of Congress and the American public. Black men and women had tried for decades to win the right to vote in Alabama and other states. Their struggles, though not universally known, were widely reported. Most Americans agreed that it was shameful and un-American to deny upstanding citizens the right to vote.
But most Americans did not know how viciously and sadistically white authorities would defend their contention that African-Americans should never be allowed to vote, regardless of what the Constitution said. They were willing to beat peaceful fellow citizens with baseball bats and truncheons, run over them with mounted police, hit them, drag them, do whatever had to be done, including murder, to stop them from walking to Montgomery and demanding their constitutional right to vote. When Americans saw the reprehensible, inhumane, irrational fury of those white officers, they demanded change. They demanded passage of the Voting Rights Act.
Just as images of fire hoses and police dogs attacking peaceful demonstrators had turned America's sentiment in favor of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the images from the Edmund Pettus Bridge turned Congress and America in favor of the Voting Rights Act.
The sadistic men who beat helpless marchers were trying to stop African-Americans from winning the right to vote in Alabama. Instead, they achieved exactly the opposite of what they had wanted. The instigators of hatred and violence against innocent, peaceful people assured the passage of the most sweeping voting legislation since the 15th Amendment 95 years before.