By Linda Tarrant-Reid
“Ain’t nothin’ changed, but the date.” Sadly, no truer words have been spoken, especially given the sweeping initiatives by Republicans today to turn back the clock to the Jim Crow Era, where individuals’ rights were legislated away creating “two separate and unequal” societies. Currently, 31 states, and more poised to jump on the bandwagon, have passed laws requiring voters to show I.D. at the polls in order to cast their ballots.
This 21st century voter suppression strategy by Republicans, to keep certain groups from voting, is all too familiar and reminiscent of Freedom Summer of 1964 when Civil Rights organizations including the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) brought in white and Black college students to register Black voters. The coalition of civil rights groups also created Freedom Schools and taught African American students about black history, the Civil Rights Movement, and leadership skills, as well as math and reading.
These efforts by the civil rights organizations during Freedom Summer, along with the Selma-to-Montgomery March of 1965, paved the way for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 signed into law in August by President Lyndon Johnson. The law prohibits states from implementing discriminatory voting practices including imposing certain qualifications and prerequisites such as literacy tests and poll taxes on prospective voters.
It also prohibits states from denying a citizen the right to vote based on their race or the color of their skin.
In Selma, Alabama in 1965, civil rights organizers from the Dallas County Voters League (DCVL), SNCC and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) conducted registration drives, organized classes to help African Americas pass the literacy tests and held marches to the county court house to register African American voters.
To publicize their voter registration campaign, the first Selma-to-Montgomery March for Voting Rights in Alabama was organized for Sunday, March 7, 1965, and is often referred to as “Bloody Sunday.” The march of nearly 600 was led by now Congressman John Lewis (D-Georgia), the young leader of SNCC, and Reverend Hosea Williams of the SCLC.
The group headed out of Selma and over the Edmund Pettus Bridge where they were met by state and local police who attacked them with clubs and tear gas. The horrific melee was captured by photographers and TV cameras that broadcast the bloody images of unarmed civilians brutalized by law enforcement across the country and around the world. This event was a turning point for the Civil Rights Movement in America because it unveiled the terroristic acts of law enforcement, the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups endorsed by the state, against African Americans.
On March 9, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. joined with 2,500 activists in a “symbolic” march across the Pettus Bridge to show the world that they would not give up on voting rights for African Americans. The third march, which began on Sunday, March 21, 1965 in Selma with an estimated 3,200 marchers, finally arrived in the state capitol of Montgomery on March 25 after a 54-mile trek that took four days, under the protection of the U.S. Army, the Alabama National Guard, FBI Agents and Federal Marshals.
So now, we’re dealing with the same issues. What happened? What went wrong? How did we end up back where we started in 2012? I noticed a change during the 2008 presidential campaign when Republican contender John McCain tapped Alaska Governor Sarah Palin for his running mate. Sarah was venomous and spunky, espousing rhetoric that we hadn’t heard in, oh so many years. The coded messages steeped in racism would insight a dormant beast that awoke rearing its ugly head hungry for the red meat of racist oratory.
Sarah Palin was the ringleader who attracted thousands of like-minded individuals at her rallies. Her supporters carried signs slandering Candidate Obama and depicting him as a “foreigner”, a Muslim and a radical. Palin’s boisterous rallies were an opportunity for the right wingers and white supremacists to air their extremist views targeting minorities, gays and anyone they deemed as outsiders. This environment of hate and racism was aired with abandon on the national cable shows, network news programs, talk radio, blogs and in print media. A lot of eyeballs and ink was used to accelerate Palin’s message that would evolve into Tea Party pabulum that is fed to the disheartened masses that are looking for a way out of this mortgage/foreclosure nightmare and joblessness abyss.
The good news is that Black folks and other disenfranchised citizens are not asleep at the wheel. The platform has expanded – we are engaged in the struggle to fight voter suppression, immigrant rights and workers rights.
The Selma to Montgomery March of 2012 led by Reverend Al Sharpton and others, 47 years after the first march, is a prime example of oppressed peoples working together toward a common goal. We must join together and right the wrongs that a frightened segment of the American population is attempting to foist on the rest of the country. We must speak up, let our voices be heard, change the laws to protect the rights of all – just like we did during the Civil Rights Movement.