Why the 1965 Voting Rights Act Still Matters

3. Black Voters Line Up 8 copy

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.Down Home_A (dragged) voting

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

4th of July 1965 at the Bessie W. Munden Playground

excerpt from This Little Light of Mine, This Bright Light of Ours: Stories of the Wilcox County Voting Rights Struggle

I slipped into the cloudy lukewarm unfiltered water with leaves and pine needles floating all around. Nearly fifty of us filled up the pool and stirred up the gritty dirt collected on the bottom, but the water was cooler than the 90 degree air and it was ours for the moment.  I thought we were deep in the woods; later I learned that it was only on the edge of town a little ways off of Highway 221. As with all black areas, the roads were unpaved, and there were no flush toilets or drinking fountains, just a pump for filling the pool. The Bessie M. Munden Playground was named for an early Camden Academy teacher who collected money from the other teachers to build this park so that the children would have someplace to play.

Camden Kids 2008

The little kids leapt from the edge into my arms. Then I tried to teach them to float and paddle on their backs. The water seemed too dirty to put your face in although naturally they did. We splashed and sang and yelled, feeling far away from the white people gathered at the fairgrounds to shoot off firecrackers. “Crackers with firecrackers, shootin’ off their mouths” someone quipped. We were supposed to love everybody like Dr. King said, but it was getting harder every day.

As he waved his ever-present pipe in the air, Dan Harrell told us proudly, “You know this is historic, integrating this pool. Some day because of what you all are doing this summer, all the children of Camden will have nice places to play, to swim, to go to school — black and white together. You enjoy your day, we gotta’ go to Selma to meet with Rev. Blackwell.” That couldn’t be good news. Rev. Blackwell was Program Director for SCLC and this was a holiday weekend.

Children at EM Parrish Day Care Center: L to R

Mylka Hayden, Isaiah Love, Richard Chatmon, Torrence Phillips, Jamarion Wright

Photo by Samuel Torres Jr ©2008.

Bessie W. Munden Park

We stayed until dusk, eating watermelon, singing, talking. Charles Nettles started spitting watermelon seeds, mocking the stereotype of an old black man while we all laughed. Near sunset we sang songs like I Love Everybody and Change is a Comin. For a few hours here in the woods it felt that maybe we could hurry up that change in Camden. Change was being hard fought but like the song says, there ain’t no way it isn’t going to come.

Letter from a student civil rights worker in Camden, Alabama

This letter is copyright by Maria Gitin (formerly Joyce Brians) and is a section of a book to be published in 2014.. It may not be used in any print or other format without permission in writing from the author.

June 20, 1965 First Public Letter Continued…
Around 2:30 a.m. we arrived at Antioch Baptist Church in Camden, Alabama. We had to sleep on the floor without blankets or pillows. Never have I slept on a sweeter bed. But we only slept two hours when we were awakened. Major Johns had stood guard over us because there were Klansmen driving up and down in front of the church. Some of the kids left then for their counties. We had been promised a place to stay by a certain Negro who backed out at the last minute. The rest of us were nearly stupefied with hunger, exhaustion, and a little bit of fear. We had to find housing in a town where whites hate us and most Negroes are afraid of us.

Freedom Fighters: The Next Generation

In the morning, I got dressed and went to the church service. There were only a few people there—lots of children and a few ladies, no men. After church I talked to the children who gathered round me and asked them to help me canvas for voters. They told me their parents wouldn’t register because they just don’t care anymore. The children are beautiful—they still have hope. There isn’t hardly anyone in Camden between 18 and 35 years. There is nothing here for youth—no jobs—no schools—no social life—no opportunity for advancement.

Sunday night I was initiated to my first mass meeting. It was held in the little community church at Coy, a nearby village. Major [Johns] and Rev. Harrell preached for two hours about the importance of registering to vote and the people really responded. Continue reading