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In Selma, Ala., Kamala Harris reflects on the current fight for voting rights

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It has been 57 years since John Lewis and other civil rights activists were beaten by police as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. They were marching for voting rights. Vice President Harris went to Selma yesterday to commemorate that powerful moment in American history. As NPR's Scott Detrow reports, Harris used the trip to try and resurrect her own voting rights push.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: When I say voting, you say rights. Voting.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Rights.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Voting.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Rights.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: On a hot, sunny day in Selma, Ala., the politics of 2022 felt as present as the politics of 1965. The main point of the event was, of course, to commemorate the violent, bloody moment when state police attacked peaceful marchers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: They were kneeling when the state troopers charged. They were praying when the billy clubs struck.

DETROW: But like so many people in Selma, Vice President Kamala Harris' mind was split between honoring the past and confronting the present, between the progress made since 1965 and the work that still needs to happen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRIS: And nowhere is that more clear than when it comes to the ongoing fight to secure the freedom to vote.

DETROW: In Republican state after Republican state, voting access has been restricted. Harris is leading the Biden White House's efforts to confront the wave of new laws. It's a top administration priority, but right now it's going nowhere. In January, two voting rights bills stalled in the Senate. The Democrat-controlled chamber decided not to change its rules to allow them to pass easier. Harris acknowledged the setback, trying to draw a parallel between that and the 1965 push.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRIS: Remember; it took three tries for the marchers to cross the bridge. It took their sweat, their tears, their blood.

DETROW: It's not clear how Harris and Democrats can change the Senate math, but in Selma, she promised to try.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRIS: In a moment of great uncertainty, those marchers pressed forward.

DETROW: And after her speech, so did Harris.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) ...To tell the Lord, nobody (ph)...

DETROW: Flanked by the families of Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis, among others, the first Black vice president walked forward across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, retracing that famous march from 57 years ago, forward into what many see as a doomed fight to try and pass those stalled voting bills and forward with a trip to Poland and Romania later this week, where Harris and the Biden administration will try to organize allies against Russia's invasion of Ukraine. It's a war the administration is framing as a broader fight for democracy, one against autocracy.

Scott Detrow, NPR News, Selma.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEN WILLIAMS' "THE DEATH OF EMMETT TILL (INSTRUMENTAL)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.