I come to Selma every year on Bloody Sunday. That’s the day in March when King’s marchers were met by riot police on Edmund Pettis Bridge. Now, this anniversary is a jubilee: we cross the bridge to celebrate how far we’ve come, with marching bands, banners and choirs.
But there’s more work to be done. So we start every year’s jubilee with a “Backwards March”: Holding hands, I join other pastors and the formerly incarcerated to march backwards across the bridge, at the head of the parade. No one crosses the bridge until we’ve finished. Then the celebration continues.
Why do we march backwards? To remind us of everyone who’s been left behind. We’ve got to go back and get them, and get things right, so we can move forward.
We march under this banner: “From the back of the bus to the front of the prison, the struggle continues.”
I am formerly incarcerated myself. When I was released, I took the state of Alabama to court to regain my vote, then to restore this right to others. Because of these efforts, a quarter of a million in Alabama now have their voting rights restored.
But many still don’t know they can vote. So since 2003, with help from the Drug Policy Alliance and Project South, I’ve gone inside jails to register voters. Because even if you’re on the inside in Alabama, if you’re not yet convicted, or convicted of a misdemeanor or a nonviolent drug offense, you can vote. No matter what you’ve been told.
These millions of men and women – the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated – are America’s truly forgotten. They’re not on anybody’s list, or in anybody’s poll; they’ve never been counted. No one ever thought we’d overcome the odds and vote.
Alabama’s GOP has fought me every step of the way. Why? Because the last thing they want is for these millions of voters to regain their rights. One of the officials who opposed me most, Mike Hubbard, is now in prison for fraud. He can vote now, too, thanks to our efforts. You can’t make this up.
Slavery still exists in the United States. That’s because the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery in 1865, says it can still exist “as a punishment for crime.” Prisoners all across this country are forced to work for free, or for pennies on the dollar.
But that’s not all the Constitution says. The Eighth Amendment also bans “cruel and unusual punishment.” What punishment is more cruel and unusual than this modern form of slavery?
And in states all across the South, intentionally vague ‘Moral Turpitude’ clauses bar those convicted of crimes from the vote. So in 2008, I sued Alabama and forced the state to allow me to extend voting rights to prisoners. In 2017, Alabama finally passed a law to clearly define crimes of ‘moral turpitude’ which has re-enfranchised most of the 286,000 people with felony convictions in the state. But many of them still don’t know they can vote. And hundreds of thousands more across the South – in Florida alone, there are 1.3 million – are waiting for this right to be restored.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘Marching backwards for freedom.’