Day 4:The journey to Selma by Marcelle Giovannetti 

June 14th, 2018

This day engulfed me with the heaviness of grief for all the many lives lost in the freedom struggle. We began day 4 at the Rosa Parks Museum and I learned of the many others (and women before her) who would not give up their seat in non-violent protest against injustice.  I began to see how school desegregation, sit-ins, the bus boycott, voting rights, freedom marches and freedom riders were all chiseling away at forces that opposed the God given right of every human to be treated with dignity and respect.

The bus journey to Lowndes County Interpretive Center was the same path marched on foot, over days, by some of the most courageous people of our time as it traced the route of the freedom march from Selma to Montgomery.

    Here I learned about the ridiculous questions  Black people were asked during voter registration like “how many bubbles will this bar of soap produce?” . I also learned about tent city that served as a place of refuge for crop sharers when they got evicted from white-owned land when they voiced their desire to vote.  I was immediately pulled into the reality of our current headlines as the term  “tent cities” is now being proposed to house immigrant children, which begs the question: how far have we really come in this freedom struggle? 

We spent the afternoon in Selma where I met the unforgettable Miss Joanne Bland who whipped a group of 50 adults into line like it was child’s play! She is extraordinary and her resilient spirit tireless. She introduced the group to the pure joy of a eating a dripping ripe southern peach. She also shared her firsthand account of marching as a young girl across the Edmund Pettus bridge. “I can still remember the screams” she said…I listened, looking out of the window, staring at the very bridge where it happened.  I was moved to tears marching across that bridge in the footsteps of so many who were brutally beaten on Bloody Sunday then hunted relentlessly and pursued back into town. The barbaric truth seemed too much to absorb. The slaughter of unarmed people peaceful standing up for their right to not be terrorized left me feeling like my grief was joining the weight of theirs,  mourning in solidarity with every generation of freedom fighters I have learned about.

I was struck by the reminents of wreckage still visible in Selma. The dissonance between the “haves and the have nots” still clearly visible. The disparity and inequity of old that still exists but changes its shapes and morphs into present day oppression. I could see it and feel it as we drove through Selma. Joanne Bland knows it all too well, and has spent her life using her own pain as the foundational bricks that can build a better community. I found her so inspiring! Yes ma’am I did.

 

This little light of mine

June 14th, 2018

The Civil Rights Tour brings the past to the front door of your mind and requires one to open the door and allow it to speak for itself. It begs the question, Will you let me in? Will you learn? Will you repeat the mistakes of the past? Will you know me?
To me this trip continues to remind me of how little I know and how indebted I am to those that have come and suffered before me. As a man of color working on a predominantly white institution, I can’t but be thankful for those that endured so much to pave the way for me to be a part of something that many of them died fighting to achieve. Albany Georgia, touched me in a profound way as we sang freedom songs with Ms. Rutha Harris one of the original Freedom singers. Ms. Harris gave account of her experience as a teenager seeking to find a way to participate in this very important movement taking place around them. Ms. Harris became one of four students who formed a quartet at Albany State College which eventually became known as The Freedom Singers in 1962.
The result of their voices gave strength and hope to the civil rights movement through communal song by empowering and educating audiences all across the country. As we followed her direction to the tune of this Little Light of Mine I was especially moved because it was a song that meant so much for me as a child growing up on the far eastern continent of Africa.
These young students used their voices to give hope to a movement, to shine their light however little that light was. I was struck by the vivid recollections of singing this same song with other children in the playgrounds and churches in Kenya and how similar the message of spreading light was. The strong link of the message for kids around the world that even though a child, you possessed something that you could pass on to the rest of the world. A light that can shine and break walls and cripple hatred. A light that even a child can easily carry.
Standing there locked hand in hand, we swayed slowly to the voice of Rutha leading us in song and I sensed a kinship to a movement that continues in its own. Maybe, just maybe we can all take hold of the simple lyrics of this timeless tune and let our light shine however little we may think it is.
As we recognize the need to let our light shine we can hear the knock of history on the locked door of our minds, open and develop a posture of learning and just maybe we will avoid repeating the mistakes of our past.

Dereck

Reflection on Days 1-5 of the Civil Rights Bus Tour

June 14th, 2018

Memory. It is a powerful tool that can be used for good or for evil. Memory can be used to enshrine, but it can also be used to selectively forget that which is more convenient to ignore.

Over the first five days of the Civil Rights Bus Tour, memory has been a theme of the sights we have seen and the people whom we have met and heard. From the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which commemorates the 4000 plus victims of race-based lynchings, to Carolyn McKinstry, who recounted to us her experience growing up in Birmingham in the 1950s and 60s, the experiences to which we have been exposed are powerful reminders of the racial oppression that is a foul blot on our nation’s history. To a large degree, our national consciousness chooses to overlook or ignore these injustices, preferring instead to focus on our successes: the passing of the 13th amendment, the Voting Rights act, Brown vs. Board of Education. While it is incredibly important to acknowledge these victories, it would be a disservice to those who fought for them to ignore the horrifically unjust conditions that necessitated these decisive actions. That is why the work that the lynching memorial and museums such as those we have visited is so crucial. The sacrifice made by those whose lives were brutally taken through police violence, KKK terrorism, or other hate crimes, cannot be fully fathomed if we choose to ignore the evil against which they dedicated their lives to fighting.

Although recognizing these injustices can be sobering and emotional, and can reflect shamefully upon our nation, parts of the Christian church, and much of the white race in America, it is a necessary step in the process of racial reconciliation. Without a recognition of wrongdoing, sin can never be put right. However, through the uncovering of truth, forgiveness can finally begin to heal.

-Ben Baddorf

One of the monuments at the The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.

One of the monuments at the The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.

Reflections on Day 1-3 by Marcelle Giovannetti

June 12th, 2018

What a journey! We began our tour Friday with excited buzz, building relationships with each other in the van through shared laughter and listening, leaning in, to the stories of each other. Then Saturday immersed us in the story of the Greensboro 4, courageous, first year, college students, who were not more than 18 or 19 years old. These 4 were the catalyst for a movement that inspired their generation (and beyond) to speak out against injustice. Hearing their story left me pondering what “lunch counter” moments I would be courageous enough to attempt in my own life.

Sunday took us to Atlanta where we visited the MLK center and began learning about heroic stories of ordinary folks who did extraordinary things. Dr. King was so prophetic in the speeches he gave and I found myself connecting his message of equity and non violence to current news stories in our country. His life and legacy reverberated throughout my day and I felt their echo in my soul as I sat in a pew at Ebenezer Baptist Church listening to him preach.  I then got to visit the memorial of Dr.King and his wife and felt the peace that drenched their final resting place.

We had lunch at the famous Varsity and I got to try my first FO and discovered that I could most definitely put away two of their delicious chili dogs (after an appropriate amount of modest protest of course!)

Monday began at the Charles Sherrod civil Rights Park where we walked in the footsteps of those who bravely marched in peaceful protest. We then visited  the Albany Civil Rights institute where our amazing tour guide Debra made the exhibits come to life (she can sang too!). Then we got to sing freedom songs with the unstoppable Rutha Harris who has a set of pipes that made me weep! Her songs, sound, feeling, music and words cry out like a timeless anthem and fill every part of you when she sings. It made me thankful to Our Creator for the gifts he bestows on us in form of such extraordinary talent! 

We had lunch with Miss Rutha at Ole Times Country buffet that served up an extra helping of sweet southern hospitality that went nicely with the delicious southern cuisine. After lunch, we visited Holy Street Baptist Church, First Baptist Church and Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.  We also visited the home of Dr. King  where hate and violence still leave their ugly mark, his porch still dented from the place where the bomb exploded. For me, it served as metaphor and reminder of just how long hatred leaves its ugly mark behind, it even outlives the recipients it originally targeted… a reminder of the depth of wounds inflicted and their long term effects.

We finished off the evening with dinner at Sophia’s and I got to hear her story, another example of everyday courageous folks doing extraordinary things. For me these stories of past and present  mingled together and they are beginning to fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, one piece dependent on the other to reveal long and hard fought road towards equity and freedom. Both of which are still clearly elusive today in our nation. I felt these stories chisel away and deconstruct my own “knowing” (or lack thereof) as my own transformative learning takes on new shape that is now anchored to a more accurate account of history ebbedded in the personal stories I have been privileged to hear.

It’s only Day 3 and the people I have met along the way have be remarkable. They have given generously of themselves to contribute to my own learning. Hospitality, love and grace have been the consistent underpinnings of this journey so far. I have been deeply moved and overwhelmed by the experience and am so very grateful for it.

At the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro NC, by Jim LaGrand

June 11th, 2018

For many years now, I’ve taught about the Greensboro Four in my U.S. History survey class. I thought I knew most everything about David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, Jr., and Joseph McNeil—their backgrounds, their dorm room bull sessions about the frustrating “civil racism” of Greensboro, and especially about what they did on February 1, 1960 when they walked from North Carolina A&T’s campus to Woolworth’s to challenge the color line there.

But being in the actual place where history happened and seeing actual physical objects from history often teaches new things. I was reminded of this visiting A&T’s campus and the Woolworth’s which is now within the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro.

After our Returning to the Roots of the Civil Rights Movement tour group visited campus and the statue there memorializing the Four, our tour bus drove to the Woolworth’s. I’d thought it was “off-campus,” just a few blocks away. In fact, it was a 1.5 mile walk from campus to the store and lunch counter downtown every time A&T students wanted to buy notebooks, pens, or personal items at Woolworth’s. Quite a hike.

On that historic day in 1960 after buying personal items, they went to order food at the lunch counter and in doing so crossed the color line. Even after teaching this account for years, I had the layout of the store wrong. It’s one long continuous L-shaped lunch counter. To see this, the actual seats where the Four sat, the cash register, and all the actual artifacts of the past is powerful. History happened here. Four African-American college freshmen started something that ended up desegregating the lunch counter at Woolworth’s and soon all over Greensboro and all over the South.

In Search of a Usable Past (John Fea’s posts)

June 18th, 2017

Here are my posts from the 2017 Civil Rights Bus Tour:

https://thewayofimprovement.com/category/civil-rights-bus-tour-june-2017/

John Fea

Day 3- Albany, GA and Montgomery, AL

June 13th, 2017

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Today started in Georgia, and we went to the Charles Sherrod Civil Rights Park. This was beautiful and gave some facts of the history of Albany in the Civil Rights Movement. It is easy to tell that Albany is open and readily talking about their history in this movement. My favorite part was the tiles, and some of them say donor’s names, but one said “God is on Our Side,” and another said, “Let Freedom Ring!” How beautiful are those sentiments? God is on the side of those fighting for liberation. That is just the God we serve and that was a great reminder for me. the fight for justice is not something that is anti-Christian, in fact, it is one of the most Christian things we can do.
Following this, we went to a museum where we were able to meet Ms. Rutha Harris. Rutha Harris was one of the original Freedom Singers, and to hear the songs of this movement from people who were directly involved was inspiring and moved me to tears. I was able to sing with Ms. Rutha, and that was such a great opportunity, but of course, I was nervous! This woman has pipes! Her voice filled the entire room, and I got to sit next to her on stage and sing. The integration of this protest movement along with the Spiritual oral tradition was beautiful to hear and be a part of. Everyone in the town knew Ms. Rutha, and she was so humble, and truly had a beautiful spirit. The songs would beg Pritchett and Kelly to open the cells because God’s children are praying and crying in their cells. As I write this, I am listening to Ms. Rutha’s CD and these songs are extremely powerful.

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After this visit, we went to eat lunch and then headed to Montgomery! Unfortunately, it was raining in Montgomery so we couldn’t stop at a lot of the places we had hoped to. We stopped at Holt Street Baptist Church which was so amazing because history was made there. This is where discussion happened about the Montgomery bus boycott. I felt honored just to be standing in a place where the plans were made for a boycott that would show the power of black people and also change our lives forever.
We then were able to go back to the hotel and had dinner made by Sophia. This was the food that you would expect in the South. There was fried chicken, cornbread, meatloaf, watermelon, yams and more. This was truly a treat!
I have found it interesting that all of these cities are so eager to talk about their part in the Civil Rights Movement, but what that really means what that there was a lot courageous black people, but also the most blatant racism in these areas. While one of these things is worth celebrating and is still true today, I fear the other still lingers on as well.

A valuable part of this trip has been the conversations that I have had with faculty and students on the bus, at meals, and in the hotel. I am really gaining a lot from that and look forward to that continuing through the rest of the week!

Day 2- Atlanta, Georgia

June 11th, 2017

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The morning started on the bus early, and on the bus we listened to a sermon that King preached. The big points that I took away from the sermon were that often people say that in time, things will get better when it comes to race relations. But there is never a good time for the privilege to work to give up their privilege. I think that is important to remember, and it is interesting that King said things like this from the pulpit. The next thing King talked about was how a lot of people will say that the black people don’t need any help, they just need to pull themselves up by the bootstraps. King debunked this theory by saying that there isn’t an even playing field. King said it is like telling someone to pull themselves up by their bootstraps when they have no boots. That resonated with me because often people pretend like white people have been more successful than black and brown people just because they work harder and that’s a lie. The opportunities they are born with are completely different. Someone on the trip said that being white is like winning the “birth lottery”. White people did not do anything, and yet they are heard and experience far less oppression than their black counterparts.

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When we arrived we went to MLK’s home church. This was interesting because everything in or near the church was preserved. We went to the home he was born in, the old church, the new church, the reflection pool where MLK and Coretta Scott King tombs are, and a museum built in his honor. The part that impacted me the most was the old church. The church has beautiful stained glass and is a beautiful infrastructure. When we walked in, I could feel the presence of the Holy Spirit. I sat down and prayed while hearing the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. resonating through the room. There is power in his words, and King used the pulpit to give a message of nonviolence. I find that to be so Christ-like. Dr. King was not a poor uneducated black man, and I think that makes his sacrifice so significant. King could have lived a life still facing oppression, but he received a doctorate degree and had education on his side, so he could have made it okay. Instead, he fought with the least of these who really had no voice. That is so significant to me.

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When I saw Dr. King and Coretta Scott King’s graves, I really struggled because I wasn’t feeling too many emotions. Of course, it is touching, and it is important to remember that King knew his life was on the line every time he went out and he kept going out. I think that I have become so desensitized to the deaths of black and brown people that it takes an Emmett Till image to really pull at my heartstrings. Isn’t that horrible? The death of black and brown men is no longer surprising to me. I think this trip challenged me in that way. Hurting for each black man who has died is tiring, but everyone deserves that. If my brother or father died, I wouldn’t want people to be unphased. It’s unnatural not to feel when faced with the brutal deaths that people experience for no reason besides the color of their skin or the fight for basic human rights.

 

IMG_2167MLK has such a large area dedicated to him, and I think he deserves it. I think a lot of other people deserve it too. The Civil Rights movement is often boiled down to two or three names, but there were so many people and no matter how small of a role they played, they knowingly put their lives at risk, and deserve that credit. This is something I continue to reflect on throughout the tour. One of the small moments I       appreciated in this part of my day was a tour guide named Sunshine. Every day from 9-5, she volunteers at the fire station that Martin Luther King Jr. played at, and she had so much passion for what she was talking about, and she never stopped smiling. To volunteer every day doing the same thing, and still keep a positive attitude with a goal of making everyone feel special was really something I enjoyed and will remember about today.

 

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We then went to Georgia State University and heard from two speakers. Dr. Glenn Eskew talked about the South and the appeal of slavery and Jim Crow in the Confederacy. It was fascinating to me how slavery came with economic benefits and how often people in higher up places used racial tensions to keep them the black and white lower class apart. His lecture was full of history, and explained some of the South’s motives that are less talked about but NEVER justified slavery or segregation which i think is important and challenging to do. Dr. Eskew clearly knew what he was talking about and that was present when we asked him questions, which he gave quite insightful answers to.

Following Dr. Eskew, Juanita Jones Abernathy spoke to us all. This was amazing because she and her husband were close friends with Dr. King and Coretta Scott King. The way she talked about them was like old friends. This was such a cool experience, that not everyone will get. Ms. Abernathy was such a character, and so filled with joy. She talked about how she learned nonviolence from Jesus Christ, not from Gandhi or anyone else. Her inspiration to protest nonviolently was because of Jesus as her example. It was interesting because she said that she doesn’t pledge to the flag because she still doesn’t have justice, but she still had so much American pride. I don’t normally see those things together, and it was kind of confusing but humbling because she played such a huge role in America’s history. I think though America’s history is messy, it’s inspiring that she has found pieces of America to love while she stood in the face of oppression. Ms. Abernathy said she loves America because she has the right to protest when she is upset with something being done, and one of my favorite quotes was, “I love America with all her mess”. She has seen change and holds onto hope for more. Ms. Abernathy was a participant in nearly every march in the 60’s and was one of the first people involved in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. This is such an opportunity, and her joy was straight from the Lord, and that made me appreciate it even more.

Day 1-North Carolina

June 11th, 2017

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Last night I was asked what I was most excited for when coming on this trip, and my answer was to know more names. I had no idea where that came from, but when thinking about my education as a young biracial child, I knew three names of black people who changed the world for the better, and I knew the names of an innumerable amount of white people. I think this made it easy for me to associate white with good, and black with bad but this is far from the truth. My youth pastor always says, “Every name has a story, and every story matters to God.” If that is true, which I do believe it is, why are we not hearing the names and stories of all of these black and brown people who literally gave up their lives for me to have a better life? This is something that is troubling to me, and I hope to be a part in remedying it. These names are important. These stories have value. They deserve to be heard. This does not discredit Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or Rosa Parks, but I think they would say the same thing. I am excited to be on this trip with white people because these stories will help them to be a better ally and share the stories of others because their voice is often more readily heard. I know this trip will make me feel every emotion that exists, but I pray that I am able to adequately articulate them so that others may get a glimpse of what I experienced. This is such an amazing experience, and I am blessed to have been given it. Today we are driving to North Carolina, and then going to the International Civil Rights Center & Museum and North Carolina A&T. To stand where the Greensboro Four stood is amazing and inspiring, and I am ready to feel all the feels. I feel entirely out of my league here, where the rest of the students are far more well versed on these topics, but I hope this will help me to get there.

We watched a documentary called “Soundtrack of the Revolution”. There was a quote that said “the police can’t take away our songs,” and I was so moved by that because there was so much the police could and did do to the people fighting for their freedom, and to see them singing while being mistreated and arrested was completely moving. The hope that comes through song is empowering. Music created a sense of solidarity through all of the struggles that came their way. The documentary also talked about how the oral tradition has sustained black life and looking through history that is so unbelievably true. It talked about how going to jail became the thing to do, and I started thinking about how we are taught that people in jail are bad people, but for black and brown people that have never really been the case. So we are perpetuating this false narrative that people in jail are bad, and the police are good, but far more often than we want to believe that is not a complete truth.

When I got the monument for the Greensboro Four at North Carolina A & T, I was speechless. It’s easy to look at the statute of four men, shrug your shoulders, and move on, but I think it’s important to remember the amazing courageous that came with this protest. To think that men my age started to change and revolutionize America in difficult ways really is inspiring. While schools may be “integrated” there is still more to be done and these people inspired me to do something now. I think it’s important to reflect the lives that were put in danger for my rights. I would not be here without the Greensboro Four and those who followed after them.

There is no way to adequately express how this whole thing made me feel. I have cried 2-3 times, and it’s weird because we are traveling, but it’s not a happy trip per say. I know how I shouldn’t respond to these monuments and museums but is hard to know how to react. Some people took pictures with the monument of the Greensboro Four but I found my experience to be too somber for that. I recognize that as I advocate for other people, I am only able to do it with relative confidence of my safety because these people risked theirs first and I think that is moving, and disheartening.

The Museum was cool because I was able to stand where the Greensboro Four sat and the rest of the protestors at that time. That, to me, was really inspiring and just an opportunity I feel blessed that I had. The parts that moved me most was when we went to the “Hall of Shame”. The Hall of Shame is where there were pictures of morbid events that happened throughout the years, and they haven’t stopped, and they are not restricted to the South. I cried looking at the mutilated faces and bodies of men, women, and children that lost their lives for no justifiable reason. Emmitt Till was pictured, and it brought me back to the grace that Mamie granted the murderers of her son and the Spirit of God so present within her. That gave me a glimmer of hope, in such a horror filled area. The museum also talked about how the fabric of this country is not as perfect as we often portray it, and throughout the formation of this country, people have not been treated fairly. This is important to remember because this history does play a role in the current state of our nation. There is so much hurt, but we have come so far and seeing the Greensboro Four, and knowing they were victorious is a beacon of hope in a rather depressing time. This one restaurant’s integration is not enough for me to be satisfied, and the fact that they were beaten and tortured simply to be served a meal breaks my heart. In the museum, as the tour guide broke down different pieces of the oppression the black people faced in the 60’s, the intentionality of the white people to degrade the black folk and make sure that mentally they knew they were less than disgusts me, and that mindset permeates our media and other modes of knowledge even today.

As I was looking at their monument, which stands at the college at which they were college freshmen, I began to look into myself and think about how I had done nothing nearly as impactful as that. While I was thinking that, Kelly said, “This is the challenge in making people into big figures to look up to, we forget how we are playing a role as well, no matter how small it is.” That is so true. Every conversation I have about race and equity is a part of the role I am playing. I can’t help but thank God that often I am able to speak up without fear of my life, but many still can’t. Change is coming, but I want to be an agent of change. Yes, God will do it, but God uses people, and I want to be one of the people He uses.

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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.