The article below was published by the Freedom Socialist in the fall of 1981. It was a frank appraisal of the courageous, sometimes deadly, battle for Black voting rights that won the Voting Rights Act in 1965, and a warning that it was not a permanent victory.
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“We’re not on our knees begging for the ballot! We’re demanding the ballot!”
The tense crowd of Blacks packed into Brown’s Chapel in Selma, Alabama surged to its feet and cheered when Martin Luther King thundered these words.
It was January 1965. The historic Selma campaign for Black voting rights was underway.
Before it was over, three civil rights activists would be murdered and thousands beaten, gassed, trampled, and jailed by whip-wielding lawmen on horseback. And tens of thousands of demonstrators, outraged by the Alabama police state, would fill the streets of Northern and Western cities, echoing the cry for Black voting rights.
In August 1965, Congress finally succumbed to the uproar and overwhelmingly passed the Voting Rights Act.
Ballot breakthrough. The landmark law gave Southern Blacks their first opportunity since Reconstruction to participate in electoral politics.
The law prohibited literacy tests and poll taxes, and required federal examiners to register voters and oversee actual voting places.
And it required the Justice Department to approve any proposed changes in voting laws in six Southern states and 40 counties.
The voting rights victory was an opening wedge against discriminatory laws, repressive local governments, segregation, illiteracy, racism, and the economic/political status quo that kept Southern Blacks in bondage, to be used as cheap labor in a fascist-like world 100 years after emancipation.
Renewed in 1970 and expanded in 1975, the Act now bans literacy tests for voter registration nationwide, and requires bilingual voting assistance in districts with large non-English-speaking minorities.
But today, 16 years after Selma, the KKK is on the move, Southern business wants humbler help at lower wages, and the Voting Rights Act — due to expire August 6, 1982 unless extended — is in danger of being gutted by the New South and the New Right.
The times, they aren’t a’changing. Unquestionably, the Voting Rights Act brought changes to American politics, particularly in the South.
In 1960 only 5.2 percent of Mississippi’s Blacks were registered to vote. By 1971, the percentage had risen to 60.7 percent. The number of Black elected officials in Southern states covered by the Act has risen from 156 to 1,183 in the past 12 years.
But these good looking statistics reveal a change more cosmetic than fundamental.
While Blacks comprise 20 percent of the South’s population, Black officials hold only 5.6 percent of all electoral offices. In Mississippi, where 37 percent of the people are Black, no Blacks hold statewide office. In half the Mississippi counties with Black majorities, no Blacks serve on county boards.
Harassment, subtle and violent, continues against Black voters.
In Pickens County, Alabama, two Black women were recently convicted of voting fraud for registering voters — and this in a campaign to elect the first Black to the county school board. One of the women was fired from her teaching job of 27 years, and both received prison terms, one for four years and the other for five.
The times really haven’t changed that much. Only the slick rhetoric of racism is altered as the capitalist class rolls back the civil rights gains of the past 20 years.
Legal chicanery. If the Act is extended with a bail-out for states with “clean” records, there is little chance that Congress will act against jurisdictions that violate voting rights after the bail-out.
If the Act is not extended, the only way to challenge discriminatory voting practices will be via the costly, agonizingly slow federal court system — the same route used before 1965.
The Supreme Court has already undermined the Act by upholding at large elections in Mobile, Alabama. The 113-year-old at-large system dilutes the Black vote and sabotages chances of Blacks being elected from Black-majority districts. The Supreme Court ruled, however, that the system was not “proven” discriminatory, and the Court ignored the historical evidence that not one Black has ever held city office in Mobile, where Blacks comprise 40 percent of the population.
Protest the police state. Beyond the glare of congressional debate on the Act lurks the Klan, which crushed Black Reconstruction in the 1870s and bathed the short-lived Southern democracy in blood.
The KKK is poised to strike, awaiting a signal from the congressmen who serve big business — a signal that the civil rights era is over and a new reign of police and vigilante terror is to be inaugurated.
Civil rights supporters, North and South, must meet all proposals to weaken the Voting Rights Act with the same mass protests by which the Act was originally won.
To do less is to break faith with all the martyrs in the struggle for political and economic equality for Southern Blacks, and with the new heroines and heroes from Mobile to Pickens County.
Guerry Hoddersen worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Mississippi in 1965. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Also see: What’s up (and down) with ballot access today
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