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“Photographer Helped Expose Brutality Of Selma’s Bloody Sunday”: The ‘Segregation Beat’ That Helped Shape American History

This month Selma, Ala., will mark the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday.” That’s the day police beat demonstrators attempting to march to Montgomery in support of voting rights. Some of the most iconic images of that day were captured by a white photographer — the late Spider Martin.

Spider Martin’s real introduction to the civil rights movement came on a late night at home in February 1965. He was 25, a photographer for The Birmingham News. He explains in a video from 1987 that he got the call because he was the youngest staff member and no one else wanted to go. That assignment would lead to his most famous work.

“About midnight I get this phone call from the chief photographer and he says ‘Spider, we need to get you to go down to Marion, Ala.’ Says there’s been a church burned and there’d been a black man who was protesting killed. He was shot with a shotgun. His name was Jimmie Lee Jackson.”

James “Spider” Martin grew up near Birmingham. Small in stature, he earned the nickname “Spider” for his quick moves on the high school football field. He said while he grew up with a few black friends, he was largely ignorant of the injustice blacks faced. That changed once he started covering the Jimmie Lee Jackson case, according to his daughter Tracy.

“He realized that it was history and that it was important,” she says. “He got wrapped up in it.”

Jackson’s killing helped spur the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights marches a few weeks later. Martin was in Selma for Bloody Sunday when state troopers attacked protesters. Holding a camera made him just as much a target. He recounted in an interview with Alabama Public Television, what happened when a police officer saw him.

“He walks over to me and, blow! Hits me right here in the back of the head,” he said. “I still got a dent in my head and I still have nerve damage there. I go down on my knees and I’m like seeing stars and there’s tear gas everywhere. And then he grabs me by the shirt and he looks straight in my eyes and he just dropped me and said, ‘scuse me. Thought you was a nigger.'”

Martin kept covering the marchers until they reached Montgomery two-and-a-half weeks later.

Martin’s collection contains thousands of photographs, clippings and other notes — much of it previously unpublished before it was purchased by the University of Texas. Even producers of the movie Selma used his pictures to recreate scenes for the film. Exhibitions of his work are going up around in Selma for the anniversary, at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, and in New York.

The exhibit at ArtsRevive includes his most noted pictures from the marches. Executive director Martha Lockett says some of her favorites are less recognized including a close-up of an officer’s leg with his billy club.

“It’s very still, but very energetic,” she says. “You know what’s getting ready to happen and to me that’s one of the most dynamic pictures that’s in the show.”

That artistry was calculated, according to Morehouse College history professor Larry Spruill. He says Martin was one of a handful of photographers on what’s dubbed the “segregation beat.” They were mostly college-educated, white men in their 20’s who reflected the liberal optimism of a post-World War II generation.

“They took complex issues layered in race and made them very simple,” he says.

Spruill says the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., understood the power of visuals and tipped off photojournalists. And while the optics of Bloody Sunday were credited with shocking middle America — leading to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act — back then the pictures were considered disposable. That was partly because in the mid-’60s, photojournalism was beginning to take a backseat to the flash and immediacy of television. Spruill says he found pictures newspapers didn’t run with holes punched through them.

“It’s like finding original copies of important American history documents trashed,” he says.

A similar thing happened to the photographers. Martin’s daughter says it was decades before he became known for his civil rights pictures. He died in 2003 and she says he’d be excited about exhibiting his work around this 50th anniversary. But in his interview it’s clear he was uncomfortable with the attention.

“I mean it’s kind of fun sometimes being a celebrity, you might say, or a little bit famous. But then again, I’d rather not be famous,” he said.

Still the attention he offered through his camera, helped shape American history.

 

By: Andrew Yeager, Code Switch; Cross Posted at NPR, March 6, 2015

March 9, 2015 Posted by | Bloody Sunday, Selma Alabama, Spider Martin | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“New Voting Laws Show That The Struggle Continues”: Pointing To A Growing Lack Of Respect For Individual Voting Rights

Growing up in Mississippi more than 50 years ago, Sammie Louise Bates had to help her grandmother count the money needed to pay poll taxes. Living under Jim Crow laws angered Bates — and inspired her to become a lifelong voter.

Bates was 25 when the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, abolishing poll taxes and other discriminatory voting practices. For most of her life she did not face hurdles to the ballot box like her grandmother did.

But in 2013, that changed. Bates was no longer able to vote because her home state of Texas passed a new restrictive voter ID law. To get an acceptable photo ID, she first needed to pay $42 for a birth certificate. The cost was too much: “We couldn’t eat the birth certificate,” she testified in a lawsuit, “and we couldn’t pay rent with the birth certificate.”

Bates is an example of the hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of Americans who now face difficulties voting because of new state laws restricting the right to vote. On the 50th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday march, which galvanized support for the VRA, these Americans remind us that the struggle is not over.

After decades of progress, the past five years has seen the most extensive attack on voting rights since the VRA was signed into law. Since 2011, every state but one has considered legislation that would make it harder for many eligible citizens to vote, and half the states passed new voting restrictions. By the 2014 election, after lawsuits and repeal efforts, voters in 21 states faced tougher voting rules than they did in 2010.

These new voting restrictions — which go beyond Texas-style photo ID laws and include things like early voting cutbacks and voter registration restrictions — apply to everyone. But they are not neutral in their impact. While most people do have a driver’s license or a similar state-issued photo ID, for example, the 11 percent of Americans who do not are disproportionately African-American and Latino.

And while most people still vote on Election Day, minorities make up a disproportionate number of those who voted on the weekend and other early voting days cut in states like North Carolina and Ohio. The net effect of these changes is a voting system that is less accessible to minorities, especially those with modest incomes.

A federal court found last year that Texas’s photo ID law was passed for the purpose of discriminating against the state’s minority voters.

In at least some states, this effect is not an accident. A federal court found last year that Texas’s photo ID law was passed for the purpose of discriminating against the state’s minority voters. (That case is now on appeal.)

Race has played a significant role elsewhere as well. The push to restrict voting came after a surge in participation among African-Americans and certain other groups in 2008. Recent studies found that the more a state experienced increases in minority and low-income voter turnout, the more likely it was to push and pass laws cutting back on voting rights. The Brennan Center similarly found that of the 11 states with the highest black turnout in 2008, seven passed laws making it harder to vote. Of the 12 states with the largest Hispanic population growth in the 2010 Census, nine states did so. And of the 15 states that used to face special monitoring under the VRA because of a history of racial discrimination in elections, nine states passed laws that make it more difficult to vote.

Unfortunately, efforts to restrict voting show no signs of abating. In the first few weeks of this year, legislation was introduced in 17 states and already progressed in two.

All this points to an urgent and continuing need for strong legal protections for voting rights — protections sought and won by the brave marchers 50 years ago in Selma. But here’s the rub: in the midst of a controversial and racially-charged battle over voting rights, the US Supreme Court gutted a core provision of the VRA. The net result has been not only a loss of voter protections in the courts but also a marked increase in discriminatory voting changes in states that used to be covered by the law. This contributes to a growing lack of respect for voting rights — arguably the defining feature of American democracy.

So what can we do? For starters, urge Congress to update and restore the Voting Rights Act. Urge your state not to pass retrograde voting restrictions, and instead to modernize the voter registration system and adopt other sensible improvements like those recommended by a recent bipartisan presidential commission. And join the tens of thousands of Americans flocking to Selma this week in honoring one of our nation’s greatest accomplishments — the recognition of the equal right to vote for every eligible American.

We have come a long way, but we still have farther to go.

 

By: Wendy Weiser, Director, The Democracy Program at The Brennan Center for Justice: Bill Moyers Blog, Moyers and Copany, March 6, 2015

March 9, 2015 Posted by | Bloody Sunday, Selma, Voting Rights Act | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Universal Suffrage Is Still Under Assault”: Some Long For The Old Order Where Certain People Controlled All Levers Of Political Power

Historians refer to that day 50 years ago as “Bloody Sunday” because of the indelible images of brave men and women beaten to their knees — some knocked unconscious — as they tried to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. It hardly seems possible, now, that they were attacked so viciously for something that seems so ordinary: the right to vote.

In fact, universal suffrage isn’t ordinary or mundane or inconsequential. It’s a radical notion, still rejected in much of the world. And the legacy of those marches in Selma proves that the opponents of black voting rights were right about at least this much: If they allowed black citizens to vote, the nation would be changed.

The most obvious symbol of that powerful tide of progress, President Barack Obama, occupies the Oval Office. But the inheritance that those marchers bequeathed to the nation is evident in so many other subtle and not-so-subtle changes in our political and civic life. If the election of a black governor or U.S. senator, for example, is still unusual, it’s no longer historic. Nor is the elevation of a black secretary of state or attorney general.

But that progress has not pleased all Americans. Some long for the past, for an old order in which certain people controlled all the levers of political power, where only those who looked and spoke a certain way were allowed to hold political office, where many citizens were excluded from a government allegedly by and for them. That helps to explain why reactionary forces have spent the last 15 or so years snipping at the universal franchise, cutting away at the edges of the right to vote.

Conservative Republicans label their campaign — which centers around strict voter ID laws — “voter integrity,” as if it’s a righteous project designed to uplift democracy. It’s just the opposite: It’s designed to block the ballot for a few voters, mostly poor and black, who are inclined to support Democrats. In close elections, a few votes can decide the outcome.

To be sure, no voters get their heads bashed in. No state troopers or sheriff’s deputies wait with billy clubs to attack those who dare exercise their constitutional rights. No would-be voters are asked to number the bubbles in a bar of soap in order to register.

Still, the voting restrictions that have been passed over the last several years are just an updated version of the poll tax. Make no mistake about it: The universal franchise is under assault.

Just take a look at the U.S. Supreme Court’s astonishing ruling in 2013, which gutted a significant portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the key federal legislation prompted by the Selma marches. An ultraconservative majority did a most unconservative thing: It tossed out a law overwhelmingly passed by Congress, declaring, in effect, that the legislative branch was wrong.

The Supreme Court had earlier endorsed voter ID laws, ruling in 2006 that an Indiana requirement for photo identification at the polls was in keeping with the state’s “legitimate interest” in protecting against voter fraud. But the fraud such laws are intended to prevent — in-person voter impersonation — is as rare as the northern white rhino. It’s pretty clear that blocking the ballot is the aim here, as Republican factotums have occasionally, if inadvertently, admitted.

In reality, they don’t want certain voters to have the ballot because it has the potential to upend the old order. Think about it: If the black citizens of Ferguson, Missouri, which is 67 percent black, start to religiously exercise their right to vote, they can change the town’s leadership — and change a police department and court system that are shot through with racial bias, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Justice.

There is power in the franchise, which is why its expansion has met resistance throughout American history. Courageous patriots have given their lives to secure the ballot for every citizen.

But the struggle is not over.

 

By: Cynthia Tucker, Pulitzer Prize Winner for Commentary in 2007; The National Memo, March 7, 2015

March 8, 2015 Posted by | Bloody Sunday, Selma Alabama, Voting Rights | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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