On August 6, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law. It was one of the most important moments of the civil rights movement and one that we honor today. Yet, in our celebration of that culminating moment, I implore us to also reflect on the stories of the people and places that lead to the passage of The Voting Rights Act and its signing. Those stories and struggles cannot be forgotten.
Several weeks ago I sat inside Zion United Methodist Church in Marion, Alabama. It is the church where Jimmie Lee Jackson and others had gathered on the night of February 18, 1965 prior to marching to the city jail to protest the imprisonment of James Orange, a field secretary for Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) who had been detained earlier that day. When the local police, aided by state troopers, violently broke up the march, demonstrators ran back to the church, nearby houses, and businesses for safety. In the melee, Jackson and his family sought refuge with others in Mack’s Café. Inside of Mack’s Café an Alabama state trooper shot Jimmie Lee Jackson in the stomach as he tried to protect his mother from being beaten. The march from Selma to Montgomery was sparked by this tragic death.
I’d read the story about Jimmie Lee Jackson. I’d listened to others recount the incidents of the night of February 18, 1965. However, nothing was more powerful to me than to visit Zion United Methodist Church and march the same route that Jimmie and the others that had gathered at the church that night had taken to the old city jail. Standing on the street in Marion, Alabama on a smoldering July afternoon, 50 years later, I felt connected to history. As director of the National Park Service, I was honored to recently dedicate the Marion to Selma Connecting Trail to the official route of the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail.
The National Park Service works to ensure that the places and stories that have made us who we are as a people are preserved and shared with future generations. Visiting landmarks, historic trails and monuments allows people of all ages, particularly youth and young adults, immersive experiences that can be life changing. In March we supported 150 youth from across the United States, including a very special group of young people from Ferguson, Missouri, in a Walking Classroom event. During the course of a week, students walked the 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. They had discussions and reflective activities that focused on the right to march, the responsibility of all Americans to participate fully in the democratic process, and how the Selma to Montgomery March, its events and people who believed in the aspirations of our country, who acted upon their faith, their spirit, and their convictions, led to the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The mission of the National Park Service is unlike that of any other federal agency. We serve not only as stewards of the nation’s greatest landscapes, but as keeper of its cultural memory.
Often we have heard, “those that do not learn from their history are doomed to repeat it”. There is a great deal to be learned on a visit to a national park site such as Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Kansas, Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site in Washington, DC,or the Martin Luther King Jr. Historic Site in Georgia. These sites among many others, tell the honest and complicated stories of America. Each of these places are part of the National Park System that belongs to all of us, held in our care to inspire and carry on the message that the blessings of liberty must be defended from all threats, whether external or from within.
As we mark the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and reflect on how far we’ve come as a nation in our march toward equality and justice for all, let us not forget that in 2015 we are still working to fulfill the promise of our highest aspirations.
I encourage you to take a friend, a child, a church group, a class, or a neighbor to visit a civil rights site that is part of the National Park System. These special places belong to you. The future of our country will be greater should we all choose to look back but not turn back.
Learn more about the National Park Service historic sites and resources related to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 online.
Jonathan B. Jarvis is the Director of the National Park Service. Follow us on Twitter: @NatlParkService