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“Rights Not Safeguarded Can Be Eroded Or Lost”: Nation’s Voting Rights Laws Headed In Wrong Direction

One of the most painful scenes in Ava DuVernay’s film, Selma, about Martin Luther King Jr.’s protest marches in Selma, Ala., shows nurse Annie Lee Cooper, played by Oprah Winfrey, being turned away from registering to vote because she can’t name the state’s 67 county judges. Such ploys to block black people from voting were used in the South even after the 1964 Civil Rights Act. They ensured that unequal laws and systems endured, since elected officials were answerable only to the whites who had elected them. It took the Voting Rights Act in 1965 to make that civil right binding. Yet today that victory that legions of volunteers fought for is under attack.

Last year the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a Texas law to require voters to show photo ID cards. The law had been challenged by the U.S. Justice Department and struck down by a federal judge who said 600,000 registered voters in Texas had no government-issued ID, and that African-Americans were thrice as likely as whites to not have one. But the law was upheld by a federal Court of Appeals. Texas found ammunition in a 2013 Supreme Court ruling, Shelby County (Alabama) v. Holder, striking down a section of the Voting Rights Act that had required states with a history of voter discrimination to get federal approval before changing voting procedures. Various states have responded with new voting restrictions.

“If you live in rural Mississippi, and you have no license, you have no ID,” says Patti Miller, who just completed a documentary about the role of Iowans in the 1964 Freedom Summer. She noted that Hispanics in urban areas face the same problem.

Iowans Return to Freedom Summer, depicts five young white people, including Miller, who grew up in overwhelmingly white Iowa and answered a call from the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee to aid desegregation efforts in Mississippi. They were among 700 college students from around the country who flocked to Mississippi to help register black voters, teach black children in Freedom Schools and organize community centers. The experiences were life changing.

“I’m not sure if that sense of purpose has happened since,” reflected Miller at a preview of her film Monday. “It affects everything you do, your attitudes and outlook on life.”

For Marcia Moore, one of the Freedom Summer volunteers, seeing how hard Mississippi fought to keep black people down brought tough reckonings about her own country. Richard Beymer (who subsequently played Tony in West Side Story) found that summer a joyful time, even though “we were at war, in a sense.” He lived with seven other civil rights workers in a rented house without indoor toilet or shower, all resolute about confronting racism. Stephen L. Smith never fully got over a severe beating at the hands of Mississippi police. Yet he remained politically active, becoming the first American to burn his draft card. All reflect on their experiences in Miller’s film.

There were disagreements within SNCC about including white students, Miller recalls. “A lot felt it should be only blacks. But whenever white people were involved, the press covered it.”

The white students’ activism also “lit a fire” that prompted black people to start protesting, observes Lenray Gandy, a black Mississippi native, in Miller’s film. The movie depicts a Mississippi that didn’t just force blacks and whites to use separate drinking fountains and waiting rooms, but where black people weren’t allowed to try on shoes at the shoe store. A black man couldn’t walk down a street where a white woman was walking. Blacks couldn’t sit in the front of a bus and were expected to keep their eyes downcast when addressing whites.

But the deprivation that ensured all the others stayed in place was being unable to vote. Registrars would use a 95-question test to reject prospective black voters, according to Shel Stromquist, now a professor emeritus from the University of Iowa who took part in Freedom Summer and appears in the film.

Miller formed the Keeping History Alive Foundation because, as the saying goes, those who can’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it. But remembering may not be the problem for politicians enacting current voting restrictions. More likely they see some political advantage to suppressing the minority vote. So the question is whether fair-minded Americans will insist that Congress pass legislative fixes to ensure all qualified Americans have their voices heard.

Miller will forever be affected by the power of committed black and white people living, cooking, eating, working and risking their lives together. She went on to work with King’s organization in Chicago. So it’s disheartening for her to visit college campuses these days and see black and white students self-segregate in dining halls.

It’s easy to get complacent about battles won long ago. But rights not safeguarded can be eroded or lost. Celebrating King’s birthday, as we do this week, shouldn’t just mean reflecting on how far we’ve come, but on where we’re going, and what it will take to stay on track.

 

By: Rekha Basu, The National Memo, January 21, 2015

January 22, 2015 Posted by | Civil Rights, Discrimination, Voting Rights Act | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“After Voter Suppression”: Focusing The Nation’s Attention On The Magnitude Of The Problem

So much has happened in so many parts of the judicial system regarding Voter ID and other recent efforts to restrict the franchise that it’s hard to get a fix on the big picture. But at the New Yorker, Jeffrey Toobin has seen the future of SCOTUS action on voting rights in its rulings on Wisconsin (halting implementation on grounds of timing) and Texas (giving that state the green light) Voter ID laws, and it’s not good:

The Wisconsin and Texas rulings were just preliminary requests for emergency relief, and the Supreme Court may yet hear the cases in full on the merits. But there seems little chance that a majority of the current Court will rein in these changes in any significant way. In courtrooms around the country, it’s been made clear that these Republican initiatives have been designed and implemented to disenfranchise Democrats (again, usually of color). But the Supreme Court doesn’t care.

So Toobin thinks it’s time to make a mental adjustment back to the mid-1960s, when hostile state laws and practices on voting were overwhelmed by the sheer moral and physical presence of people exercising the rights they still had and participating in elections whatever the difficulty:

Certainly, the obstacles for voters in the contemporary South do not compare to those that the civil-rights pioneers, black and white, faced until the early nineteen-sixties. In the Freedom Summer of 1964, the still nascent civil-rights movement coalesced around an effort to register voters in Mississippi. It was during that summer that the infamous murders of the civil-rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner took place. In addition, of course, black Mississippi residents endured less well-known but equally horrific abuse from state authorities during this time. In those days before the Voting Rights Act, the effort did not succeed in registering great numbers of voters, but it did focus the nation’s attention on the magnitude of the problem.

So it could today. In light of the changes in the state laws, it’s difficult but not impossible to register voters and make sure that they get to cast their ballots. And it’s absolutely mandatory in a democracy for that to be done.

The title of Toobin’s essay is “Freedom Summer, 2015.” It’s sobering to realize that’s what we may need to restore voting rights long thought to be relatively secure. But it’s also a reminder that reactionaries who fear democracy (not just judicial conservatives, but the Con Cons who think “losers” have forfeited the right to have any say in what “winners” do with their money and power) have been defeated before in more extreme circumstances.

 

By: Ed Kilgore, Contributing Writer, Political Animal, The Washington Monthly, October 28, 2014

November 3, 2014 Posted by | Democracy, Voter Suppression, Voting Rights | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Struggle For Voting Rights Continues”: Honoring The Civil Rights Act, 50 Years Later

Fifty years ago today, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. On that great day in 1964, surrounded by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other national leaders, President Johnson outlawed discrimination based on race. While the Civil Rights Act did not eliminate literacy tests, those evil tools used in the South to prevent blacks from voting, it did require that voting rules be applied equally to all races. And it paved the way for the landmark passage of the Voting Rights Act one year later.

It’s hard to believe that in 1964, less than 7 percent of Mississippi’s African Americans were registered to vote. I was reminded of the hardships of that era the other day while watching Freedom Summer, the incredible PBS documentary on the young black and white volunteers who flooded Mississippi in 1964 to increase voter registration, educate African-American children and draw attention to the countless injustices taking place every day in the Magnolia State.

“What we were trying to do was to organize these communities to take possession of their own lives. For the last hundred years the ability of black people to control their own destiny had been taken away from them,” Freedom Summer organizer Charlie Cobb recalls in the film.

Freedom Summer volunteers walked through neighborhoods, struck up conversations in cotton fields, and sat on porches. They reminded local African-Americans that they could vote for sheriff and stop intimidation by the local police. But it was not an easy pitch.

“Immediately, what you found out you were dealing with was fear,” remembers Cobb, who at the time was a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Mississippi. “They would say, ‘You’re right, boy. We should be registered to vote, but I ain’t going down there to mess with them white people.’ ”

Cobb, who would become a distinguished journalist and author and visiting professor at Brown University, told PBS that the fear was overwhelming. “Within that small group of people who did try and register to vote, very few of them actually got registered to vote.” Voting forms were designed to be absurdly complex, and local registrars controlled who was accepted to vote. “In some counties, when people went in to register, their names would appear in the newspaper the next day. That could have recriminations for all members of their family,” said historian John Dittmer. “It could mean they would lose their job. There were real consequences to taking this risk.”

That was 50 years ago, but the struggle for voting rights continues. Today, strict photo ID requirements and cutbacks to early voting are creating obstacles at the ballot box that disproportionately affect seniors, students, low-income individuals and people of color. Twenty-two states have passed new voting-restriction laws, and advocates are fighting back in court. We must continue to support free and fair voting for all Americans, and to honor the civil rights pioneers who came before us.

 

By: Page Gardner, The Huffington Post Blog, July 2, 2014

July 3, 2014 Posted by | Civil Rights, Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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