War behind Voting Rights Act forgotten
Bloody struggle still scars activists
Author: I get "chills" when I talk about their suffering
On the night of June 12, 1963, Bernard Lafayette was walking up the driveway to his home when he heard the sound of footsteps closing in on him from behind.
He turned to see a muscular, thick-necked man with a crew cut staring down at him. “Buddy,” the man said as he motioned to a stalled car in the street, “how much would you charge me to give me a push?”
Lafayette sighed with relief, and walked toward the stalled car. Suddenly, though, the man whipped out a gun and started bashing him on the forehead. With blood dripping onto his eyelashes, Lafayette staggered to his feet and watched as the man stepped back, ready to pull the trigger.
The message from his would-be assassin was unmistakable: Leave town and stop trying to organize black voters.
Lafayette was saved by an alert neighbor. But he checked himself out of the hospital the next day and, wearing a bloodied shirt and with stitches embedded in his swollen face, returned to downtown Selma, Alabama, to resume his mission of urging black residents to vote. He was 22.
“I wanted to send a message to the people there in Selma,” says Lafayette today. “This was like a one-person demonstration, and as a result of that people came out of the woodwork. They wanted to register to vote; they wanted to get involved in this thing.”
On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court delivered another message. The court’s conservative majority issued a ruling that essentially strikes at the heart of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a momentous civil rights law for which Lafayette shed his blood.
The court voted 5-4 to limit the use of a key provision in the landmark law, in effect invalidating federal enforcement over all or parts of 15 states with past history of voter discrimination.
Section 4 of the law was struck down, the coverage formula used by the federal government to determine which states and counties are subject to continued oversight. The practical impact of the majority ruling means Section 5 can’t be enforced.
Section 5 requires Southern states and other municipalities with a history of discriminating against minorities to get federal approval before making any voting requirement changes.
Section 5 has been used not just to protect black voters, but Latino, elderly and poor voters. It was used in last year’s presidential election to halt a proposed voter-ID law in South Carolina, the reduction of early voting hours in Florida, and the drawing of a new congressional district in Texas that was deemed discriminatory against Latino voters.
While much of the coverage of the Supreme Court case focuses on the legal implications of a future without Section 5, there’s a human story behind the Voting Rights Act that’s been ignored. Many Americans do not know how and why the act was passed. And the terrible price people like Lafayette paid to make the act possible.
Lafayette is one of the founding fathers of the Voting Rights Act. He was part of a small interracial army of men and women who presented their bodies as living sacrifices for the act. Some lost their friends, their families, their minds – even their lives. But 50 years after their greatest triumph, many have died and their struggle is in danger of being lost to clichés about the civil rights movement.
When the Supreme Court held oral arguments over the Voting Rights Act earlier this year, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia called the sweeping law a “racial entitlement.”
For people like Lafayette, the act was something else: It was war.
He was a slender, dapper dresser who favored suits and bow ties. He looked like a movie star. If you had spotted Lafayette in 1963, you may have never guessed that the boyish-looking activist was already a veteran of some of the civil rights movement’s most brutal campaigns.
He had taken seminars in nonviolent activism before joining the sit-in movement in Nashville. Then he became a Freedom Rider, an interracial group of college students who faced Southern mobs as they desegregated interstate buses in 1961.
Two years later, Lafayette was looking for a new challenge. He met with the director of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a civil rights group filled with young activists, and asked if he could organize black voters in Selma. The committee’s leader warned Lafayette that two experienced teams had already been dispatched to Selma and concluded that the blacks were afraid and the whites too vicious.
If you’re curious, though, drive to Selma for a look, the leader told Lafayette.
“I don’t want to take a look,” Lafayette said. “I’m going to take Selma.”
What Lafayette found in Selma was a microcosm of what had taken root in black communities throughout the South for a century. Blacks lived in Apartheid-like conditions. They were the majority of residents in Selma, but less than 1 percent were registered at the county courthouse to vote, says Gary May, author of “Bending Toward Justice,” a stirring book that examines how the Voting Rights Act transformed America.
Selma could exclude so many black voters because the state of Alabama controlled the voting process, May says. State voting registrars devised an ingenious gauntlet for would-be black voters: Applicants had to remember portions of the state constitution; voting forms were discarded for minor errors; applicants had to be accompanied by a white person vouching for their honesty. Some registrars would simply ignore black applicants.
What happened in Alabama was part of an American tradition – weaning out minority voters, May says. Voter suppression was used to prevent immigrants from voting in the 19th and 20th centuries. In 1908, New York City politicians suppressed the Jewish vote by holding registration days on Jewish holidays and the Sabbath.
“Voter suppression is as American as cherry pie,” May says.
Lafayette tried to plant seeds for a voter rights movement but the conditions were tough. He received death threats over the phone. His address was printed on the front page of the local newspaper. He and his new wife, Colia, looked constantly in their car’s rear-view mirror to see if they were being followed.
Worse, much of the black community shunned him for being a troublemaker who “stirred up the white folks.”
“They lost hope that anything could happen,” Lafayette says.
Lafayette and his wife worked virtually alone. That was the pattern for many voting rights activists. People who get their image of the civil rights movement from newsreel footage might think activists spent most of their time in large groups, singing freedom songs while they marched.
But most voting rights activists worked alone in small isolated Southern communities surrounded by people who wanted to kill them – and did at times with the help of local law enforcement.
“I wasn’t sure whether or not I was going to survive Selma,” Lafayette says.
The attempt on his life, though, backfired. It angered many of Selma’s black residents. They started showing up at Lafayette’s mass meetings, and more tried to register to vote.
The white leaders in Selma retaliated. Blacks were fired from their jobs when their employers discovered that they had tried to vote.
Sheriff’s deputies assaulted blacks who tried to vote.
“Many of these people risked everything – their jobs, homes, even their lives – for the right to vote,” May says. “When I talk about them to groups, I get chills.”
The blood that Lafayette shed that night became the seed for the voting rights movement. It drew the attention of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Selma would eventually become the launching pad for the Voting Rights Act and Lafayette would join King’s inner circle.
Today, Lafayette is a senior fellow at the University of Rhode Island, where he founded the Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies. He’s the author of a forthcoming book on his time in Selma titled “In Peace and Freedom.”
He says the country still needs Section 5.
“I don’t feel a sense of anger; I feel a sense disappointment” at the prospect of Section 5 being invalidated, he says. “We have to recognize that our struggle is not over. Our real struggle now is to retain some of the rights that we gained, and rights that we fought for. And this is something we didn’t expect.”
Ask Lafayette and other civil rights activists why they took such risks, and they often go into “Civil Rights Mode.” They talk abstractly about nonviolence. But listen closely, and there’s often a pivotal moment in their lives that drove them to risk so much.
For Lafayette, that moment came when he was 7 and riding a streetcar with his grandmother.
Blacks in his hometown of Tampa were forced by segregation to ride in the back of streetcars. They had to pay their fare in front, then exit the streetcar and go to the rear where they could get on again and sit. They walked quickly, knowing conductors often took off before they could make it to the rear, deliberately stranding black passengers.
One day, his grandmother, Rozeila Forester, paid their fare, and he walked to the back of the streetcar and hopped on. But his grandmother never made it. As she ran to catch up to the car, Lafayette held out his hand. Her heels caught in the cobblestone, and he watched her crumple to the ground.
“I felt like a sword had cut me in half,” he says.
Lafayette decided then that he was going to do something about segregation when he grew up.
“I couldn’t get grown fast enough,” he says. “Whenever there was an opportunity to get involved in the movement, to bring about changes in these conditions, I jumped.”
It was the punch seen around the nation.
Television cameras were rolling when a minister trying to register black voters in Selma gave the civil rights movement one of its most dramatic confrontations.
It was February 1965, and the Rev. C.T. Vivian had picked up where Lafayette left off. Selma had become the epicenter of the drive to secure the black vote. Vivian had joined King and thousands of demonstrators who had descended upon Selma to destroy the blockade against black voters.
The activists couldn’t have picked a better villain for their campaign. They were opposed by Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark, a big man – 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds – with a short temper. Brandishing a cattle prod and wearing a World War II helmet similar to George Patton’s, he often attacked protesters with cattle prods and tear gas.
One rainy morning, Vivian led marchers to a courthouse, where Clark refused to allow them entrance. The rangy, fiery minister planted himself in front of Clark and began to preach, comparing him to Hitler.
“You’re racist in the same way that Hitler was a racist,” Vivian said to Clark.
Clark exploded. He punched Vivian in the face, sending him sprawling down the steps. A bloodied Vivian got up and confronted Clark again, haranguing him until he was arrested. The image of Vivian’s confrontation with Clark was beamed around the nation, and drew more sympathy for the voting rights movement.
“He couldn’t deal with the truth,” Vivian says of Clark today. “And like the general society, he tried to beat me. He did knock me down and I got up, still talking to him.”
Those televised images of brutality were crucial to the success of the voting rights movement. Civil rights activists and lawyers had made moral appeals to Americans for years, but much of the country remained indifferent.
But they could not ignore a preacher getting clubbed by a sheriff. Nor could they ignore the brutality of “Bloody Sunday.” The footage of the march in Selma is seared in many people’s memories. A group of voting rights marchers led by John Lewis, then a Southern Nonviolent Coordinating Committee activist, and the Rev. Hosea Williams, an aide to King, faced a phalanx of Alabama state troopers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The troopers charged the protesters with billy clubs and horses. Lewis’ skull was fractured, and 57 demonstrators were hospitalized.
That night, ABC interrupted a showing of the Holocaust film “Judgment at Nuremberg” to show footage of the troopers’ attack. An estimated 48 million Americans watched. The nation was no longer indifferent. Thousands of clergy and volunteers answered an appeal by King and descended on Selma for another peaceful march two days later.
The nation’s outrage over voting rights was stoked even more after the murder of two white demonstrators who had traveled to Selma after seeing Bloody Sunday footage. Their deaths (a black demonstrator killed during the same time was ignored by the national press) gave President Lyndon Johnson enough political muscle to go on television to address a session of Congress.
Johnson called for the passage of a Voting Rights Act that would protect the rights of racial minorities. The bill would no longer allow states like Alabama free rein to set voting requirements for its residents.
The president ended his rousing speech by quoting the movement’s anthem, declaring in his Texas drawl, “And we shall overcome.”
Vivian was with King the night Johnson gave his speech. They were watching it on television with a small group of aides at a friend’s home. When Johnson quoted, “We Shall Overcome,” Vivian says he saw something remarkable.
“I turned and looked at Dr. King and he was very quiet, he was very still. And a single tear ran down his cheek.”
Almost 50 years later, Vivian is experiencing another surge of emotions over voting rights. He looks remarkably the same, and his preaching voice is still intact. He says Section 5 is needed because the country has become even more racially divided after electing its first black president.
Vivian says the fate of the Voting Rights Act shouldn’t be left to nine judges who never walked in a place like Selma. He says only those victims of discrimination who benefited from Section 5 “have a right to say that things have changed enough to get rid of it.”
The image remains chilling even after almost 50 years.
It is a “missing” poster distributed by the FBI in the summer of 1964. It shows the faded, black-and-white photos of three civil rights workers – James Earl Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman – who were reported missing in Mississippi.
We now know what happened to those men. They were arrested by Mississippi sheriffs, let out of jail, and ambushed on a rural road where they were beaten and shot to death. Their story was made into a grossly inaccurate Hollywood movie called “Mississippi Burning.”
Still, many people forget today why those three men were murdered: They were trying to register black voters.
Rita Schwerner Bender cannot forget. She is the widow of one of those men. She was married to Schwerener, then a 25-year-old New Yorker who had decided to travel south to help register black voters. Both were part of an interracial group of college students who organized black residents for a project known as Mississippi Freedom Summer.
It was an audacious plan. They were black and white and working side by side in a region where races were often kept apart by violence. They established “Freedom Schools” to teach black students shunned by the state school system and even established a Mississippi Freedom Party that crashed the 1964 Democratic National Convention to challenge the state’s all-white delegation.
Bender is not sure that many younger Americans know anything about Freedom Summer.
“Certainly people who are probably under the age of 35 or 40 don’t have a personal sense of the struggle that occurred,” she says.
Bender is currently a partner in the law firm of Skellenger Bender in Seattle. She heard the argument that Supreme Court Justice Scalia made when he said that the Voting Rights Act had become a “racial entitlement.”
“I can’t think of a more offensive statement ..” she says. “I’m feeling pretty angry. When I hear a statement like that, it’s quite abusive.”
Bender, however, will not show much emotion when talking about her days in the voting rights movement. She won’t talk about the loss of her husband. She weighs every word and speaks in a monotone about that violent period in her life.
Asked how her parents reacted to her becoming a civil rights activist, she paused before saying:
“I don’t think I’m going to go there.”
Her reticence is not unusual for veterans of the voting rights wars. For some, the memories are too painful to share even four decades later. Some suffered nervous breakdowns. Others experienced survivor’s guilt. Many become stoic and detached when asked to share their experiences. Some never even told their children what happened to them.
“They’re like people who go into armies,” says Taylor Branch, author of “Parting the Waters,” the Pulitzer-Prize winning look at the movement. “They have post-traumatic stress syndrome. There are a lot of movement casualties.”
Bender is not detached, though, when it comes to talking about the contemporary need for Section 5. She says it’s still vital because of the spread of voter ID laws, and attempts by elected officials to squeeze minority voters into specific voting districts that dilute their voting power.
The idealism that fueled Mississippi Freedom seems far gone today, she says. The battle over voting rights is part of a larger pattern of many affluent Americans becoming indifferent to others with less health care or money, she says.
“I don’t think we’re at a very optimistic place in the country right now,” she said. “There’s a tremendous sense of disappointment that we have to revisit these issues over and over again.”
As measured as Bender’s statements are, the sadness in her voice is unmistakable.
Almost 50 years after one of their greatest triumphs, she and the other founding fathers and mothers of the Voting Rights Act face a new battle.
The voting wars they thought they won may soon spread across America again.