Photo: Finally, the right to vote, Spring 1966, Camden AL.
First in line: Mr. Robert Durant, second Ms. Carrie Davis, 3rd Ms. Emma Ephraim, 4th Ms. Annie Louise Ephraim, 5th Rainer Sessions Dumas, 6th Mr. Tommy Fry.7th_____, 8th Cora Coleman
Thousands of brave freedom fighters were shot at, jailed and barred from employment —others were beaten and even murdered— during the fight for voting rights for Black citizens throughout the South, including in Wilcox County, AL. Wilcox youth and adults learned their rights from their churches, from SLCC, SNCC and the NAACP, and taught them to others, launching a Movement that would span 16 years (1963-1979). Hundreds of Wilcox County activists participated in Bloody Sunday and/or the final March to Montgomery, and continued demonstrations, boycotts and voter registration until the Black majority was finally represented equitably in government and education. Economic equity is a work in progress.
The murder of voting rights activist Jimmy Lee Jackson of Marion, AL and the demonstration that became known as Bloody Sunday, all brought pressure on Congress and President Johnson to pass and to sign the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA) on August 6, 1965. Although most of the states covered by the VRA are in the South, hundreds of smaller jurisdictions and municipalities with a documented history of discrimination were also required to request advance federal permission in order to make changes to their election laws. The Court’s recent ruling overturned this requirement and leaves it to our currently divided Congress to develop new guidelines for oversight. Proof of the importance of pre-clearance for voting procedure changes is evident as six states rushed to pass new voter suppression laws, (New York Times July 5th). Changes include demands for voter ID in forms not available to thousands of qualified voters, limiting the numbers and hours of polling sites, changes to early voting and absentee ballot procedures, and other barriers that will primarily affect people of color, students, the elderly and the poor, a demographic that tends to vote progressively.
When our brothers and sisters suffered beatings, arrests and even murder in the voting rights fight we never thought we’d live to see the day when there would be voter suppression laws outside the South, especially during the second term of our first African American President. Congress must clarify Section 4 quickly, before more egregious backsliding laws go into effect, and before reactionaries in smaller jurisdictions begin to undo the decades of progress made in electing officials of color.
Maria Gitin is a Life Member of the NAACP, a civil rights veteran, and author This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight, University of Alabama Press, 2014.
Portions of this essay were published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel and in the Watsonville Register Pajaronian on Sunday August 4, 2013