U.S. Sen. Rand Paul was two years old when 500 marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma on Sunday, March 7, 1965, to promote voting rights for black Americans and protest the killing of Jimmie Lee Jackson, who was shot by a state trooper at an earlier voter registration march.

Before the marchers, led by John Lewis and Hosea Williams, reached the other side, state troopers stopped and violently beat them as television cameras broadcast images of what would become known as “Bloody Sunday” to a worldwide audience.

Sunday marks the 50th anniversary of that day, which helped spur significant change in America’s historical trajectory, including passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Paul, the junior senator from Kentucky and a potential Republican nominee for president in 2016, wasn’t old enough to understand the events that unfolded that day, but he is well aware of their effects.

“(Bloody Sunday in Selma) helped solidify (for) people that it was really time to fix the tragedy of separation and segregation,” Paul said.

When the topic of discussion turns to present-day civil rights, Republican voices are far too often absent. Paul wants to change that.

He absolutely believes the civil rights movement should resonate with conservatives.

“Particularly after you get the 14th Amendment. (It) was a big step forward,” Paul said of the legislation that in 1868 provided “equal protection under the law” in response to the status of freed slaves. You can’t have tyrannical government at the state level or the federal level.”

Specifically, Paul sees “Bloody Sunday” as the necessary impetus that moved the nation to combat state-sanctioned racism.

“People at the time must have been shocked by the violence of it,” he said. “It also showed that something really had to be done. It was extraordinary to have federal intervention, but at the same time what happened with the violence at Selma was extraordinary as well.”

While half a century has passed and America has made great strides toward a more equal society, significant racial and socio-economic disparities in employment, incarceration rates and education remain.

“We do have a lot of work to do,” Paul said. “We have a great deal of poverty in our big cities.”

To address these gaps, Paul proposes “economic freedom zones,” or areas with reduced taxes, which he believes will provide cities with high-minority populations living in poverty with the resources to craft solutions that work for them rather than a top-down approach from Washington.

In December 2013, Paul introduced a bill in Congress to create those zones in cities such as Detroit. “This would dramatically lower taxes and leave $1.3 billion in Detroit that would not be sent to Washington,” he said.

Paul plans to offer the same for “any other city that has high pockets of poverty or unemployment.”

Paul also sees education as a significant area where there should be shared goals of improvement among Republicans and Democrats. “I’m a big fan of school choice, letting kids chose to go where they want to go to school,” he said. “I’d let them go to the best public school they want to choose in their area, or I’d let them go to the best private school and take their voucher with them.”

With minority voters, and particularly black voters, heavily supporting Democrats, Paul recognizes Republicans have their work cut out for them in persuading them the GOP has a plan with their interests in mind.

“In the 1920s, nearly 90 percent of African-Americans were Republicans,” he said. “When the Great Depression came, there was a large switch in allegiance, and it has been the same or continuing to get stronger over the last 70 years or so.”

One of the effects of the Voting Rights Act was the creation of “majority-minority” congressional districts nationwide, virtually assuring that minority voters are able to elect a candidate of their choosing. Yet the districts also generally consolidate those voters in one area, all but eliminating their voice in neighboring congressional districts.

Paul sees that as a challenging issue to address.

“(Majority-minority districts) have allowed for much greater minority representation in Congress,” he said. “That’s good, and I agree with that. (But) all of these voters have been grouped in one district. … There hasn’t been as much interaction between Republican politicians and large African-American populations.”

Paul said the events in Selma were critical to our trajectory as a nation of equals, and they should still inspire our efforts today.

“I’m very glad that the terrible tragedy [in Selma] finally spurred our country to do the right thing,” he said.

Featured Publications