In the UK, there are just over three months until voters take to the polls to either re-elect the incumbent, or choose a new Prime Minister. In the US, speculation is rife over who will run, in 2016, to become the 45th President. One potential candidate has actually just declared that he will not run – thus making way for the presumed frontrunner in the Republican Party.
In both countries, I have the privilege to be able to participate in the electoral process. Voting is an honor that I do not take lightly because, as an African-American woman, I am quite conscious that during the Suffragette and Civil Rights Movements, countless people, from both my gender and my race, risked their lives – sometimes, with fatal results – for my right to do so, without persecution.
In the US, I proudly mail my Absentee Ballot for state and national elections; and in the UK, I am usually standing at my Polling Station, when the doors open. I cannot imagine not voting.
|My Absentee Ballot|
SELMA TO MONTGOMERY
Next month marks the 50th Anniversary of the most revered and remembered events that took place in the United States, which paved the way for African-Americans, in Southern states, to be able to register and actually vote, without being verbally or physically intimidated, harmed – or even killed. These were the three Selma to Montgomery, Alabama marches for voting rights, which took place during the month of March 1965.
Many of my American friends and family have probably seen the critically acclaimed film: SELMA (officially released in the UK on Friday, February 6th), which pays homage to the organizers and participants of those marches; and is the first of many, major commemorations that will occur in the next, few months. This blog post is my small contribution to the many.
The morning of Monday, March 8, 1965, my parents – who lived in Connecticut at the time, and were able to vote, without intimidation or persecution – would have woken up to this truly disturbing front page of their local newspaper, The Hartford Courant:
However, these horrific headlines would not have come as a surprise to them. The previous evening, the ABC Network interrupted its scheduled program to broadcast coverage of the first march, and what came to be known as Bloody Sunday because of the carnage that ensued, from a peaceful protest.
What events led to that fateful day?
In the 1960s, Selma, Alabama – part of Dallas County – was considered to be the “most oppressive city in the South.” It had been a major slave-trading port in the ‘Black Belt,’ had seen many lynchings of black people, and even though the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had been passed, black citizens were often beaten and arrested, if they attempted to dine in a restaurant or go to the movies, for instance. Selma also housed the state headquarters of the White Citizens’ Council, known as the “Klu Klux Klan (KKK) in suits.” Although black citizens were technically allowed to vote, the Board of Registrars required that they pass a literacy (which was not required of its white citizens), which consisted of naming all 67 county judges in the entire state of Alabama. An almost impossible task, which, along with other serious intimidation tactics, resulted in less than 1% of the eligible African-American population in Dallas County being registered to vote.
Selma was also tyrannically ruled by Sheriff Jim Clark, who was a proud segregationist, and who employed ‘untrained thugs’ on his police force.
|Sheriff Jim Clark|
In January 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the first president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and newly awarded Nobel Peace Prize winner, arrived in Selma on the 102nd anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation to spearhead “a determined, organized, mobilized campaign to get the right to vote everywhere in Alabama.” There were demonstrations nearly every day, but Sheriff Clark and the Board of Registrars were not moved. On February 1, Dr. King and 770 others were thrown in jail. “This is Selma, Alabama,” he wrote in The New York Times, from his cell. “There are more Negroes in jail with me than there are on the voting rolls.”
The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) – chaired by John Lewis, had also been galvanizing (mostly) African-American university students to march for their voting rights. They, too, were arrested several times.
Later that month, the evening of February 18, a peaceful voter rights demonstration took place in nearby Marion, Alabama. The protesters were met by angry and racist local police and Alabama State Troopers. One of those State Troopers, Jim Fowler, followed 26-year-old church deacon, Jimmie Lee Jackson, and his mother into a café; and as Jimmie tried to protect his mother from Fowler’s nightstick, Fowler shot him. Jimmie died eight days later in a Selma hospital. Fowler was finally charged with murder in 2007 (he pleaded guilty to manslaughter three years later).
At the end of February, the SCLC, SNCC and other activist groups agreed that they would coordinate efforts and march the 54-miles from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery, to demand to speak to Governor Wallace (also a renowned segregationist) about Jimmie Lee Jackson’s death, and that he protect black voter registrants. The SNCC had serious reservations about the march – primarily because Dr. King was not going to be able to participate in it. However, John Lewis acquiesced and confirmed a date of Sunday, March 7, to lead the march with Rev. Hosea Williams, from the SCLC.
|Hosea Williams and John Lewis leading the first march|
Governor George Wallace denounced the march and promised it would be met with serious resistance before it even got started.
|Governor Wallace posing in front of a Confederate Flag|
He made good on that promise, and Sheriff Clark and his band of thugs were awaiting the ~600 marchers, as they left Selma and crossed Edmund Pettus Bridge (named after a Confederate Army Brigadier General, who also happened to have been a Grand Dragon in the KKK).
|Police await the marchers on what was to become Bloody Sunday|
|Teargas on Bloody Sunday|
The police attacked the protesters with whips, nightsticks and teargas, and charged at them on horseback. Some of the marchers were violated so badly, they became unconscious.
|Bloody Sunday - Beaten Unconscious|
John Lewis was beaten so severely, his skull was fractured.
|John Lewis getting his skull fractured on Bloody Sunday|
News coverage of Bloody Sunday triggered a national outrage. Similar ‘sympathy protests’ occurred in 80 cities around the country, as well as protests inside and outside The White House. Phone calls and telegrams from citizens barraged Congress and The White House.
|Selma Sympathy Protesters|
Baseball great, Jackie Robinson, who was the first African-American to play in Major League Baseball wrote to President Lyndon B. Johnson:
President Johnson, who had already issued a statement deploring Bloody Sunday, met with Governor Wallace and urged him to bring in the Alabama National Guard to help peacefully police further protests. The President also began writing the final draft of his Voting Rights Act, with an aim to expedite its submission.
Meanwhile, Dr. King had called for religious leaders and citizens, from around the country, to join his group of organizers, for a second march on Tuesday, March 9. Hundreds of people turned up, in response.
To prevent further violence, the SCLC attempted to gain a court order that would prohibit the police from interfering and attacking the protesters. Instead of issuing the court order, Federal District Court Judge Frank Minis Johnson – who was actually a fair judge – issued a restraining order, prohibiting the march from taking place, until he could hold additional hearings later in the week.
Dr. King decided to ‘play the long game.’ He did not want to violate an order, that was issued by a sympathetic judge, because he could prove to be an ally, in the future. This thinking was met with resistance by other activist organizers, and those who had traveled from afar to be directly involved. They wanted to march.
As an intended compromise, Dr. King led 2,500 marchers across Edmund Pettus Bridge, and held a short prayer session on the other side, before turning everyone back to Selma. Most were confused and annoyed, but Dr. King implored people to remain in Selma until the injunction had been lifted, and another march could take place.
Tragically, that evening, three white ministers who had come to Selma for the march, were attacked by four members of the KKK and beaten with clubs. The worst injured was James Reeb, from Boston. Rev. Reeb died, in hospital, on Thursday, March 11.
Rev. Reeb’s death provoked mourning throughout the country, and tens of thousands held vigils in his honor. President Johnson called Rev. Reeb’s widow and father to express his condolences, and he included him in his speech to Congress, as well as praised the courage of all of the activists, when he delivered his draft of the Voting Rights Act, a few days later, on March 15.
Click here to see President Johnson deliver his March 15 Voting Rights Act speech to Congress.
Meanwhile, protests within Montgomery continued, and were met with violent resistance and arrests by local and state police, as ordered by Governor Wallace.
MAKING IT TO MONTGOMERY – THE FINAL MARCH
On March 17, the aforementioned Judge Frank Johnson ruled in favor of the protesters, saying their First Amendment right to march in protest could not be abridged by the state of Alabama. On March 20, seeing that Governor Wallace had no intention of protecting the protesters, President Johnson federalized the Alabama National Guard, himself, and also commanded one thousand military police and two thousand army troops to escort the marchers from Selma to Montgomery, so that a peaceful protest could occur.
The organizers were eager and ready. On Sunday, March 21, 1965, 8,000 people, from all races and religious backgrounds, left Selma and began what would be a 5-day trek to Montgomery. They walked in the rain. They walked on crutches. They walked 12 hours a day and slept in fields along the way.
|Selma to Montgomery Final March Map|
Over the next, few days, the group swelled to 25,000; and on the final night of the march, on March 24, a "Stars for Freedom" rally was held, with the likes of Harry Belafonte, Tony Bennett, Peter, Paul and Mary, Sammy Davis, Jr., Lena Horne, Joan Baez and Nina Simone, performing.
|Sammy Davis, Jr. performing at the Stars for Freedom Rally|
|Nina Simone performing at the Stars for Freedom Rally|
|Harry Belafonte and Odetta performing at the Stars for Freedom Rally|
On Thursday, March 25, the determined and energized 25,000 marched from St. Jude to the steps of the Alabama State Capitol Building in Montgomery, where they were met by 50,000 supporters, but also those against them. They had made it!!!
Click here to see a very powerful video that was recorded during the Selma to Montgomery march.
In Montgomery, Dr. King delivered the speech: “How Long? Not Long.” In it, he said:
The end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. ... I know you are asking today, ‘How long will it take?’ I come to say to you, this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long.
|Dr. King delivering his "How long? Not long." speech|
After delivering the speech, Dr. King and the marchers approached the entrance to the capitol with a petition for Governor Wallace. A line of state troopers blocked the door. One announced that the governor was not in. Undeterred, the marchers remained at the entrance until one of Wallace's assistants appeared and took the petition. The marchers headed back to Selma, feeling a sense of accomplishment.
The fact that the march had been successful, further angered dissenters; and yet another tragedy occurred, later that night. While driving marchers back to Selma, Viola Liuzzo, a white mother of five from Detroit, who had come to Alabama to support voting rights for blacks, was assassinated by KKK members.
AFTER THE MARCHES
The third march received national and international coverage. Gaining more widespread support from other civil rights organizations in the area, this march was considered an overall success, with greater influence on the public. Voter registration drives were organized in black-majority areas across the South, but it took time to get people signed up.
The Voting Rights Act became a law on August 6, 1965. It guaranteed the right to vote (first awarded by the 15th Amendment) to all African-Americans. Specifically, the act banned literacy tests as a requirement for voting, mandated federal oversight of voter registration in areas where tests had previously been used, and gave the U.S. Attorney General the duty of challenging the use of poll taxes for state and local elections.
In the first, few years that followed, overall progress was slow, with local registrars continuing to use their power to deny African-Americans voting access. In most Alabama counties, for example, registration continued to be limited to two days per month. However, one high-profile election in 1966, saw more than 7,000 registered black voters in Selma, vote Sheriff Clark out of office. Clark later served a prison sentence for drug smuggling.
John Lewis is now the U.S. Representative for Georgia's 5th congressional district, serving since 1987, in the Democratic Party. He is also the Dean of the Georgia Congressional Delegation; and is Senior Chief Deputy Whip, leading an organization of chief deputy whips and serving as the primary assistant to the Democratic Whip. He has held this position since 2007 and been on the Whip team since 1991. Congressman Lewis is the only living "Big Six" leader of the American Civil Rights Movement, having been the chairman of the SNCC.
|Congressman John Lewis, in 2014, posing w/my nieces, Jillian and Sage|
When President Obama was elected in 2008, Congressman Lewis said that, “he was overwhelmed and proud to see some of the efforts of the Civil Rights Movement realized.” In February 2011, he was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama.
Were the Selma to Montgomery marches worth it? Even the friends and loved ones of those who suffered or perished would say: "Absolutely!" In 1960, there were just 53,336 black voters in the entire state of Alabama; three decades later, there were 537,285. There are even more, today, in Alabama and throughout the South. Also, in 1996, the 54-mile Selma-to-Montgomery National Historic Trail was established, preserved by the National Park Service.
EXERCISE YOUR RIGHT TO VOTE!
Regardless of your political leanings, I encourage you to vote. It is the only way to make real progress in society; and chances are, someone in your past made a sacrifice so that you could do so.
Sources: Wikipedia, History.com, Stanford University, National Park Service, CNN.com, PBS, The New Yorker, Charlotte Observer, Spider Martin, Google Images, YouTube