A History Lesson for Non-Voters
Monumental courage under unrelenting racial oppression.
As a member of a certain generation, one who lived through the ’50s and ’60s and took part in many voting rights demonstrations, I have been shocked by some of the conversations on social media among non-voters with such a passionate disinterest in voting. Young people who openly and unequivocally state: “My vote won’t matter.” Even after the nightmare this nation has endured under the most vile, racist and ignorant individual to ever occupy and defile the office of the presidency. I find this stance unacceptable. Moreover, this attitude diminishes the struggles and sacrifices that our people endured to simply get the right to vote. Someone much older and wiser than I am once said:
Having had the tremendous good fortune of being born and raised by two strong and devoted parents who had very secure political ideologies, my own were shaped very early in my formative years. In our home, community and world events were routinely dinner table conversation, and our family life in post-World War II, pre-Civil Rights Movement Montgomery Alabama was clouded by the constant presence of racial oppression. Nevertheless, after enduring what can aptly be described as America’s version of Apartheid, courageous southern Negro citizens organized social protests and demonstrations to end segregation; making one of their first demands, one of the most fundamental rights of a free people in a democratic society. The right to vote.
After the Civil War and the Reconstruction period, this right, among others was denied to Negro citizens living in the South. And in later years, despite the guarantees of the 14th and 15th Amendments, white supremacist state governments systematically continued to refuse to grant them voting rights. Although they were prohibited from banning voting rights by the 15th Amendment, these racist local governments wrote into their state constitutions a litany of voter restrictions which made voting extremely difficult. These obstacles included literacy tests, poll taxes and a so-called “grandfather clause”, which permitted voting privileges to anyone whose grandfather had been registered to vote prior to the Civil War. These barriers worked for decades. Until southern Negroes became, as voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer said: “Sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
Ordinary citizens, as well as civil rights activists, launched voter registration drives all over the South, triggering national attention. And although these initial attempts to effect change were met with wide-spread racial hostility and animosity and brutal violence, the Civil Rights Movement was spreading and was virtually unstoppable.
Voters Education, the Montgomery Movement, and the Women Behind It All
Voter’s Education Handbook
This voting tutorial was created and distributed by several women in our community who organized as the Women’s Political Council which was working behind the scenes to galvanize all of the Negroes of Montgomery against the continued indignities being suffered onboard the city’s buses. These women, Mary Fair Burks, JoAnn Gibson Robinson, Irene West, Thelma Glass, and Uretta Adair, are some of the unsung true heroines of the historic 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott.
From my parents’ hushed conversations overheard during this time, I sensed that our world was changing. Then, there came a time in the early 1950s when these conversations began to take on a note of urgency and there were whispers of action brewing within the Women’s Political Council and the Montgomery Improvement Association. The rumors and conversations were later borne out when the women of the WPC launched a city-wide boycott of Montgomery city buses. JoAnn Gibson Robinson, Mary Fair Burks, Irene West, Thelma Glass, and Uretta Adair spearheaded a city-wide campaign to challenge age-old discrimination practices and the humiliation that our people had been forced to endure while paying required fares and riding city buses. Thanks to the strong initiatives of these women who were later rendered to behind-the-scenes status, the year-long Montgomery Bus Boycott crippled the city’s bus system, captured the nation’s attention and launched the Civil Rights Movement. (SEE: The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It: The Memoir of JoAnn Gibson Robinson).
Similarly, in the early 1960s, news of a courageous group of young college students, volunteers and clergy members began blazing across the headlines as they sprang into action and took up the cause of voting rights and voter education in the Deep South. Among them, Diane Nash; James Bevel; C.T. Vivian; John Lewis; Julian Bond; Bernard Lee (my cousin’s husband); James Forman; and Bob Moses. They soon found themselves on the front lines of one of the greatest social movements of all time, and their courage and vision changed the course of history. During Freedom Summer of 1964, hundreds of student volunteers from all around the country joined civil rights organizers and local Negroes in a historic effort to break the back of Jim Crow and shatter the foundations of segregation in this nation’s most racist and segregated states. Civil Rights organizations and leaders on the front lines included SNCC, (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee); CORE (Congress of Racial Equality); and the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People); They were later joined by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference).
After a number of grassroots efforts e.g., Freedom Summer, The Nashville Movement, SNCC, the Freedom Riders, and the Alabama Project propelled them into leadership roles, these courageous young visionaries moved on to the Selma Voting Rights Movement. And shortly thereafter, the drive for voting rights became a central part of the civil rights strategy. Following an intense voter education campaign throughout the South, and the three Selma to Montgomery marches in March of 1965, national and worldwide attention was focused on the civil rights struggle and the accompanying violence as well as the determination of the demonstrators.
On Sunday, March 7, 1965 — at the moment the demonstrators crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge into Selma, they were ambushed by Alabama state troopers on the orders of Governor George Wallace. Charging the peaceful demonstrators on horseback, mounted policemen wearing gas masks brutally beat many of the marchers unconscious. Disturbing images of the “Bloody Sunday” attack spread immediately across the country.
A Nation Is Galvanized
Shortly thereafter, President Lyndon B. Johnson went before a joint session of Congress to persuade the Congress to pass his Voting Rights Act. In what has been described as his most eloquent speech, the president said:
“I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of Democracy. I urge every member of both parties, Americans of all religions and of all colors, from every section of this country, to join me in that cause.”
Voting rights supporters in Congress were uniformly galvanized and rushed to quickly enact legislation. On August 4, 1965, the Voting Rights Act passed the Senate by a bipartisan vote of 77 to 19. On August 6, 1965, surrounded by a large group of civil rights leaders and government officials in the President’s Room adjacent to the Senate Chamber, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.
This landmark legislation prohibited Southern states from using literacy tests, poll taxes, re-interpreting the Constitution, and other methods of excluding African Americans from voting. During previous months, civil and human rights activists across the nation had taken to the streets in a peaceful protest for voting rights. They were frequently met, not only with police violence, billy clubs, and tear gas, along the way, but several activists and volunteers were murdered. And during the Selma to Montgomery March, with newspaper and television coverage bringing the violent images into living rooms across the country, the peaceful, moral protest finally achieved its goal.
The exhilarating and encouraging news that the previously red states of Kentucky and Virginia have both gone blue may very well be the long-awaited signal that this national Trump nightmare will soon be over. But the significant voter turnout among Democrats is also a reminder of what Barack Obama spoke about when he said: “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” And I would add: “Yes we can” was not just a campaign slogan. It was a clarion call to action.
Commemorating and wistfully recalling Barack Obama’s historic election on November 4, 2008, my post-2016 election PTSD symptoms are already kicking in. With the cesspool of corruption continually oozing from the White House on a daily basis, and with Russia hovering and standing by for an encore wave of election interference, the people of America, every individual of voting age must gather and galvanize in the greatest and most massive voter turnout in history. Our very democracy depends upon it.
In his passionate message to black voters, President Barack Obama made a powerful plea to his listeners to exercise the hard-won right to vote and issued a clarion call for us to honor those who sacrificed and fought so hard for us to have that right.