Why the Descendants of Racist Segregationists Still Attempt to Oppress Voting Rights
Florida, Alabama, and Louisiana are callously ignoring the rulings of U. S. Federal courts, including the Supreme Court, ordering them to create a legislative map that gives African American voters a greater chance of having a second majority representation district. repeating the sins of the era of segregation. They are spitting on the Voting Act and the Civil Rights Act as Florida has an ongoing trial. The Supreme Court has already ruled against Alabama, but the Alabama Attorney General is delaying and attempting to block the ruling of the Supreme Court. Louisiana is dragging its heels on the drawing of the new legislative map. At stake are voting rights for all Americans.
While insisting they are not racist (the new defense for being racist), these Southern states claim they are only trying to eliminate fraud in voting. That no evidence of fraud exists only magnifies the arrogance of this trio of Dixie states.
Rights are slippery entities. Rights bestowed in one generation can be retracted, eliminated, and removed in a new generation. The tangled history of voting rights is largely explained by the persistent struggles over maintaining a majority for the Republican party. The meaning of “voting rights” is endlessly debated. Legal machinations come and go as if they can be picked up at Wal Mart and hoisted onto an unsuspecting public.
Voices, some silenced by murder, now cry out from southern soil to protest a new outbreak of white politicians attempting to repress the votes of African Americans. The voices speak again to our consciousness when southern states revert to a previous generation pulling every trick in the book to stop African Americans from voting. Burned into our brains is the picture of Governor George Wallace standing in the door of an Alabama public school to prevent the end of segregation. This should be the poster ad for the current attempts not to have a second African American majority district in Alabama.
The Beatings of Freedom Riders Part of a Shameful Legacy
In 1961, a busload of Freedom Riders received a brutal beating from a white mob in Birmingham, Alabama. The riders made it as far as Montgomery where another mob gave them another vicious beating.
In Tylertown, Mississippi, where police officers just went out and systematically whipped on a large number of Negroes every Saturday night, where there was a designated “Beating Ground” not far from the city.
In the Winona, Mississippi jail, African Americans working for voting rights were beaten by prison guards. One of the leaders of the movement, Mrs. Hamer described the beating of a fifteen-year-old girl: “I could hear them licks just soundin’. . . . But anyway, she kept screamin’ and they kept beatin’ on her and finally she started prayin’ for ’em, and she asked God to have mercy on ’em, because they didn’t know what they were doing. And after then. . . . I heard some real keen screams, and that’s when they passed my cell with a girl, she was fifteen years old, Miss Johnson, June Johnson. They passed my cell and the blood was run-nin’ down in her face.”
Charles Payne, in I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, describes what happened to Mrs. Hamer: “When Mrs. Hamer’s turn came, the guards, perhaps tired by this time, had her lie face down on a bunk and ordered two Black prisoners to beat her with a studded leather strap until she couldn’t get up.
Images of the violence swirling around attempts of African Americans to vote in the 1950’s are once again coming back into focus. Voting rights were hard-won by African Americans in the 1960’s. Southern states were not willing participants in providing African Americans the right to vote.
Learning from a Tragic History of Repression
Alabama’s own history in restricting the right to vote is clear. Congress passed the 1965 Voting Rights Act in the wake of the March 7 “Bloody Sunday” violence on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. State troopers with clubs and bullwhips attacked civil rights protesters.
The history of the Civil Rights movement still teaches us about living in the present. The descendants of the white men who beat, tortured, arrested, and murdered African Americans protesting for freedom now carry on that tragic family tradition by inventing new ways to restrict the right to vote.
As James Baldwin noted: “To accept one’s past—one’s history—is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it. An invented past can never be used; it cracks and crumbles under the pressures of life like clay in a season of drought.” Giving young people a history that they can use doesn’t require any bending of the record. Quite the contrary. The more precisely and complexly we can render the history, the longer it will be useful.
Arrogant, brazen, public attempts at restricting the rights of African Americans remains a force in the politics of some southern states.