When civil rights were on the rise.
Rumbles of opposition to the renewal of the Voting Rights Act were heard this past summer and grew loud enough for Republican congressional leaders to postpone a vote on the measure on June 22, 2006. These rumblings sent shivers of apprehension through civil rights backers, including those who worked to ensure passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. I am one of these 1965 civil rights workers. I breathe easier since the renewal is accomplished fact. But laws on the books may not be laws realized on the street. Some have come to this realization recently, while some of us have carried it with us for forty or more years. It pays to remember. I cannot forget.
In Bullock County, Alabama, about fifty miles southeast of Montgomery, I sweated out the long, hot June and July before President Lyndon Baines Johnson finally signed the Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965. As a college sophomore I chose to forego a summer waitressing job to volunteer with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's Summer Community Organizing and Political Education (SCOPE) project. I was a civil rights worker, an outside agitator to those who resisted our work.
During that summer of 1965, along with four other students from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I worked to encourage African Americans in Bullock County, Alabama, to register to vote. I saw the harassment and delaying tactics first hand. I learned from local leaders about the history of African Americans' efforts to achieve the vote in Bullock County. It was a history of denial and delay.
In the 1950s African Americans attempting to register to vote needed someone already on the rolls to vouch for them; the catch was that any one voter could vouch for only three people a year. Since few blacks had ever been able to register and no whites would vouch for blacks, most other blacks were kept from registering under this system. A lawsuit brought by Aaron Sellers resulted in the courts outlawing this policy, but the Sellers family was threatened and local registrars could and did find other delaying tactics. Challenging each of these tactics separately took effort, energy, and all too much precious time. The 1965 Voting Rights Act addressed these issues in a comprehensive way. It brought joy, relief, and change to Bullock County and enabled the election of African Americans to public office.
Local leaders, volunteers, and SCOPE recruits all worked hard to make this change happen. Canvassing from house to house in a mostly rural county meant long days walking in the hot sun, a tedium that sometimes evaporated with a warm welcome from a black family and other times was wiped out by terror with the sudden appearance of hostile whites.
For most of June we had lived in the homes of activist families and worked near Midway where Aaron Sellers, Wilbon Thomas, and other local leaders who had invited us to the county also lived. We gathered one early July morning in front of a county map. Push pins dotted most of the roads in the southern part of the county, those areas we had already canvassed. "Look here" Benny pointed out. "What about Perote? We haven't been to Perote at all. And Smuteye. We need to get over there, too."
I still am in love with the names of the local communities in Bullock County and have to smile as I repeat them to myself again. In 1965 these names carried important numerical significance, each locale representing so many potential voters to be registered. Everyone agreed that we needed to work Perote and Smuteye. But someone raised another question at that strategy session: "What about Union Springs?" Up to that point we had worked outside the county seat where it was harder for local opponents, including the local police, to monitor our every move. We needed to begin work where the largest number of potential black voters resided if blacks were to have any chance of winning future elections.
Fannie Lamb, a Midway teenager, and Nathaniel Herwell, another volunteer from Milwaukee, were eager to work Union Springs. I decided that I too wanted to go.
Fannie and I hoped to stay with her aunt in Union Springs, but the aunt backed off. As a teacher she feared being fired if she associated with us too much. We went to see Mr. Poe, who owned the Black funeral home in Union Springs, a small cafe, and maybe a pool hall as well. He let us use a room in the funeral home for an office and a place for Nathaniel to stay--Nathaniel joked that he slept in a coffin--and eventually found a place for Fannie and me with the Bethunes, an elderly couple with a small, very well kept home.
Before long, Union Springs teenagers began contacting us, foremost among them Paul Harrington and Gwen Williams. It was Gwen who would later send me newspaper clippings dated May 6, 1966, with good news about that spring's election results: Red Williams, the owner of a television repair store, our first contact in Union Springs, and black candidate for sheriff "was leading incumbent C. M. Blue Jr. by 1,531 to 779 votes in unofficial returns from eighteen of Bullock County's twenty-four boxes." Fred D. Gray, a black civil rights attorney and featured speaker at one of our rallies, outpolled both of his opponents with 2,061 votes to their combined total of 1,901 for a seat in the Alabama State House of Representatives, a victory that Andy Young also highlights in his autobiography, An Easy Burden. Gwen noted another local victory overlooked from more distant perspectives but significant in Bullock County: "Another Negro candidate, Rufus Huffman, had a two-to-one lead over incumbent tax assessor Thomas Kilgore."
Back in 1965, in view of the opposition we faced, we couldn't have anticipated this news. Yet we worked as hard as if we knew we could bring results quickly. With Paul and Gwen's help we organized mass meetings in the evenings and continued canvassing during the day.
Heading out to a July fourth picnic where we could talk up voter registration, I remember driving down Prairie Street in a car full of teenagers, listening to WBAM, "the big Bam here in the cradle of the Confederacy, Montgomery, Alabama." On one of those summer days, perhaps that day, we listened for the first time to a hot young group called the Rolling Stones bang out a catchy tune. We sang along, all of us young people in that integrated car in Alabama in 1965, accompanying Mick Jagger, that skinny British white guy who had picked up something essential from black music. We were his unacknowledged chorus and then we changed it up on him, singing, "I can't get no re-gi-stra-tion. Well, I tried, and I tried, and I tried, and I tried..." Then our voices stretched thin and intense like his, "I can't get no, oh no, no, no," our hands drumming against the seats of the car, "hey, hey, hey!"
The week following the Fourth of July was to include three full days when the registrars were to be at the Bullock County Courthouse in Union Springs taking registration applications, the only month with more than two registration days. We hoped to get a thousand people registered that week, but delays seemed to put that goal beyond reach. On July 5 the registrars dosed the courthouse after only seven people had registered because they said they didn't have any more registration forms. Barb, our project leader, tried calling SCOPE Project Director Hosea Williams in Atlanta to get his permission for us to picket the courthouse in protest, but she couldn't reach him.
Our trouble continued outside the courthouse. We had a flat tire on one trip into town. We had it fixed at the service station in Union Springs and set back out, only to get another just beyond town. Nathaniel had to change that tire himself in ninety-five-degree heat. While I waited on the side of the road I said to myself, wait a minute. When we went into the service station we had one flat tire. We got it fixed and then within a half hour, the other goes flat, all on one of the few registration days this month? Could it possibly be that the second tire was "fixed" as well?
On July 6 we tried to get everyone who had told us they would register when we canvassed to follow through and come with us. We managed to bring forty-one people down to the courthouse that day (and registration forms somehow materialized for all of them). Only forty-one, we thought. Barb was so disappointed she cried. But the local leaders were ecstatic; this number broke all records for a single registration day. At the mass meeting that night there was a crowd and it was pumped. Our spirits rose. I wrote to my friend Becky that night, the night of my twentieth birthday. "It's been frustrating" I said, "and yet, it's been a good day."
Fannie and I got to be quite good at what we were doing, but of course we did suffer from discouragement. One day, late in the afternoon when we were already tired, we stopped at the home of a short, slightly stoop-shouldered man who shouted at us, "Go away! Voting is white folks' business." Today many of my white suburban students seem to have a strange mutation of this idea minus the color component. They seem to believe voting is someone else's business, even some of those who advocate war as a way to defend American ideals and to set up elections in other countries.
Most of our best moments in 1965 came when Fannie spontaneously devised just the right action to make the most of something routine. For example, we once stopped in a small white-owned grocery store for a cold drink. I made my choice from the cooler quickly, Nehi peach-flavored pop, opened the bottle using the opener built into the cooler, took a drink, and hummed the freedom song we volunteers had improvised, "Freedom Fighters love Nehi peach-flavored pop." Fannie handed me her Coke. "Can you open this for me?"
I turned toward her, forehead wrinkled in a question. Then I caught a glimpse of the white clerk's face, hardly able to contain her disgust, and understood. Fannie could have opened the bottle herself but she wanted everyone in the store to see that blacks and whites could be friends who do favors for each other. We still can be.
Some thirty-five years later I returned to Bullock County on a civil rights tour of the South with my daughter, Anna. Nehi peach-flavored pop and Blues Grocery Store were two of the things I wanted to find. Finding Blues was easy--it had become an item on a Union Springs historic walking tour map available at the welcome station off the first freeway exit into Alabama.
But I despaired trying to find the pop. Every restaurant offered only a limited range of either Coca-Cola or Pepsi products. We continued on our walk, Prairie Street past the courthouse, past the statue of the pointer that celebrates Bullock County's new identity as the field trials capitol of the world. We stopped in the drug store. Anna looked at the choices in the soda machine by the entrance. "Mom," she said. "Look."
I bought two bottles of Nehi, plastic rather than the old-fashioned glass, one to take back to Wisconsin. I twisted the cap off the other bottle. I wanted to enjoy it right then and there on Prairie Street, across the street from the doctor's office that in 1965 had two doors, each leading to a separate waiting room. Back then, one year after the 1964 Civil Rights Act called for an end to segregation in public accommodations, the lettering on one door, "Colored," had been painted over, but the paint job merely shaded the letters. The words weren't erased. In 1965 everyone still got the message.
Thirty-five years later all such signs had disappeared. I drank deeply; it was unbelievably sweet. The courthouse officials who ran out of registration forms on the few days in July 1965 when people could register to vote were gone. As of 2002 about two-thirds of the elected officials in Bullock County were African American, a number proportionate to the overall African American population in the county.
New voting issues, however, still surface. Hotly contested presidential elections in 2000 and 2004 raised questions about whether polling place practices, especially in Florida and Ohio, had the effect of discouraging voters and discounting their votes. Elections in Bullock County in July 2002 resulted in victories for two white candidates for positions long held by African American incumbents and under circumstances that prompted charges of illegal absentee votes. In June 2006 the Supreme Court found that redistricting in Texas included drawing boundaries that violated provisions of the Voting Rights Act. In August 2006 a federal judge in Alabama agreed to an unusual departure from standard operating procedure, taking control over voting rolls from Democratic Secretary of State Nancy Worley and giving that power to Republican Governor Bob Riley. Later that month a federal judge struck down a Florida law that imposed enormous fines on third-party voter registration organizations that take too long to submit voter registration forms, saying it threatened free speech.
The Voting Rights Act, all its provisions intact, was renewed on July 27, 2006. This is perhaps one of the few good side effects of a Bush administration needing to defend itself on many fronts. Proponents argued the act was still needed in light of congressional hearings that showed certain districts continue to make it harder for minorities and citizens with limited English to be informed when they cast ballots. Opponents of renewing the Voting Rights Act, some of whom objected to provisions requiring jurisdictions with large numbers of non-English-speaking voters to print ballots in certain other languages, couldn't afford an upfront battle over renewing the law that guarantees a fundamental right to all United States citizens. The original act implemented important and much needed change, correcting practices that disenfranchised eligible voters. With its renewal we can take a measure of comfort that voting rights will continue to be protected. But measures passed by Congress and signed into law by the president are sometimes enforced only selectively, so we must remember the time when civil rights were on the rise and why.
Margaret Rozga teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Waukesha and is currently working on a book detailing her work in the civil rights movement. Her recent publications include essays in Focus and MELUS and poetry in Nimrod Out of Line, and Red, White and Blues: Poets on the Promise of America.
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|Date:||Nov 1, 2006|
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