The Ever-Present Relevance of Civil Rights Within Our Democracy – Robin Lauermann

June 23rd, 2016
Retracing the march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, AL

Retracing the march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, AL

”A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up that state’s segregation laws was democratically elected? Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties in which, even though Negroes constitute a majority of the population, not a single Negro is registered. Can any law enacted under such circumstances be considered democratically structured?”

– Martin Luther King, Jr. (1963) “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

For nine days, we traveled through nine states, visiting historical and contemporary sites of significance and talking with veterans of the Civil Rights movement. Of all the impactful takeaways – and there were many – this experience affirmed my value of civic engagement, especially the extent to which the right to vote supercedes other rights and privileges because of its ability to check government power and inhibit the infringement by citizens on the rights of one another through legislation. Potential weakening and reversals of legislation upholding citizens’ rights to register and vote reveal that not only must we appreciate the sacrifices for this right, but we must also remain vigilant in its ongoing protection.

My first personal experience with the topic of race and ethnicity – at least the first of which I had awareness – came in grade school when something inconceivable, at least to my elementary-school mind, occurred. One morning, in the early 1980s, I awoke to news and a picture of a burning cross, at a home just next to my school in the suburbs of Buffalo, NY. That home belonged to a class-mate, our school’s only African American student. This incident shocked, sickened and scared me; I can only imagine the impact it had on her and her family.

Following a rather superficial education in this area during elementary and secondary school, not an uncommon experience even to this day, I began to dig in deeply to these issues in both my undergradute and graduate studies in political science: Context courses, legal and other policy courses, and even a year working as a research assistant to a faculty member working on a book about Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (which denied federal funding to entities discriminating on the basis of characteristics prohibited in the legislation). My academic work – teaching, research and institutional service -has had continued attention on this issue, especially as it relates to civic engagement. The civil rights tour vividly reinforced the importance of voting, as well as the sacrifices, which are often underappreciated in low voter turnout, made by those citizens who fought to exercise their rights.

After all these years, it is still mindblowing to consider that it took almost 100 years to pass a Voting Rights Act to protect the right guaranteed to African Americans by the 15th Amendment. This delay is especially troubling because the lack of voting rights equated, as Dr. King noted, to a lack of representation in effect, both in the candidates who won and in the legislation that they passed. Although the right was backed by constitutional amendment, many tactics degraded African American access to the ballot, including but not limited to:

  •  Legal barriers
    • Literacy tests – which included problematic wording so that even those who knew the answers might not get it right (For example, one question asks which type of cases before the Supreme Court may be changed by congressional law; the answer included the term co-appellate rather than appellate
    • Poll taxes
    • Requirement for a white to vouch for a non-registered African America
  • Informal power barriers
    • Eviction from sharecropping property
    • Termination of employment
    • Lynching and other terrorist acts against individuals, black and white, who attempted to register voters.

Although legislation prior to the Voting Rights Act attempted to redress some of these issues, they were, at best, only partially successful. Understandably it would take more to motivate more significant change, as only 325 African Americans living in Dallas County, including Selma, had successfully registered by 1965!

Of the many pieces of the voting rights story shared throughout the tour, the part that most viscerally impacted me was the time spent in Selma, Alabama with Joanne Bland. Hearing from her about her experiences in the movement more largely – she had been arrested something like 13 times for countering segregation laws by the time she was 11 – gave a personal context for the struggle. Her description of the events surrounding the planning for the march from Selma to Montgomery, including its unsuccessful first attempt that resulted in Bloody Sunday, conveyed the scope of the participants’ support and determination to work peacefully within the system to challenge the deprivation of their rights. When we concluded our time with Ms. Bland and retraced the steps of the March over the Edmund Pettus Bridge, I had chills and brimmed with emotion that surpassed anything I had grasped from reading historical descriptions, watching actual footage or seeing the dramatic presentation of the events in the movie Selma.

Further study and attention to current events reveal that progress towards full access to these rights is not irreversible. The Voting Rights Act was significant, but still suffered from challenges in enforcement – there is a reason why policy folks note that the implementation of a law is the key to its success. Although registration rates have increased among the African American population, recent elections still have evidence of tactics discouraging individuals from exercising their rights at the voting booth. Renewals of specific sections of the VRA, requiring clearance of plans for states with history of most egregious deprivation of voting rights, have been watered down. In addition, partisan gerrymandering, which is an ethical but not illegal activity, provides a proxy for diluting the vote of African Americans and others through “cracking” and “packing” of districts when the boundaries are redrawn every 10 years following each census. (North Carolina’s 12th Congressional District has been a gross example for decades and only recently successfully challenged by federal court decision as racial gerrymandering). Some states have also  recently adopted strict voter id laws, which disenfranchise the least economically priveleged, even in the absence of ANY systematic evidence in non-partisan research that voting fraud exists in any measurable levels.  In short, the struggle is not yet over.

Ms Bland shared an idea with us that captured both the historical and contemporary significance of the civil rights movement. She noted that social movements are like a jigsaw puzzle, in which each of the participants is a piece; without any one, it is incomplete. I think that analogy can be extended further, by considering the movement as a mosaic puzzle, in which smaller images come together to create a larger picture. The aspect of voting rights, is just one segment of the movement, albeit one so fundamental as to affect all other rights. We must be aware of our individual role within democracy and act to preserve as well as strengthen it.

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