After the Civil War, three amendments were added to the United States Constitution to address the new reality for free blacks. The 13th forbidding slavery, the 14th guaranteeing all people the same rights and privileges as everyone else and finally the 15th, the right to vote without regard to race or color or previous condition of servitude.
The right to vote proved to be elusive for blacks especially in the South. States and local governments, ignored the federal government and devised numerous schemes to stop blacks from a federal guaranteed right. Of course law enforcement, state troopers, sheriff departments and local police worked on behalf of whites, to uphold the local laws that were direct violation of federal law. For the nearly 100 years from the 15th Amendment’s ratification to the voting Rights Act of 1965, a “half-hearted” or non-existed commitment to the right to vote for African-Americans existed.
White only voting registrations, literacy tests, grandfather clauses, and many seeming silly stumbling blocks to registration was a normal part of life in the South. How many jelly beans in the jar at the county voter registration office? A fee for all of the years since a potential black registrant was eligible but didn’t register. By the 1950’s in rural Alabama as in any number of other communities, voter registration was such a challenge most blacks just didn’t bother. However, the majority black counties in Alabama had the good fortune of leaders in their community like Rev. Shuttlesworth in Birmingham and James Orange in Selma, Alabama.
James Orange was arrested for using high school students to help register blacks in Perry, Dallas and surrounding counties in Alabama. He was arrested and held in the county jail in Selma, Dallas county in 1955 for contributing to the delinquency of minors. The fear of Orange being taken from the county jail and lynched was real. So a march and protest was launched. Of course, the Alabama State Patrol did what they could to stop the march. During the protest, Jimmie Lee Jackson was killed by a State Trooper.
Local leaders made a call to a dynamic leader and his team of brilliant strategists. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others visited Jimmie Lee in the hospital. He died 8 days after he was shot. It was time for a major action. The March from Selma to the State Capitol in Montgomery was scheduled for March 7, 1965. Shortly after Jimmie Lee’s funeral and coincidentally shortly after Malcolm X’s funeral in New York.
Dr. King called on a unique soldier to lead the campaign, Hosea Williams. He had been imprisoned often for protesting and would guide the process. Assisting him was the young John Lewis. It took 3 tries to get the march completed. The original march, the followup march (Turn Around Tuesday) and then the federal protected march 2 weeks later. President Lyndon Johnson was moved. Attorney General Robert Kennedy couldn’t believe the reports of the violence directed at unarmed, peaceful protesters and later marchers.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965, a landmark piece of legislation was signed into law by President Johnson on August 6, 1965. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. orchestrated an action that took nearly 100 years of federal law to come into reality. His soldiers, John Lewis, Hosea Williams, Andrew Young and others navigated the difficult waters to demonstrate to the world the plight of blacks in the Southern United States.
The legacy of all of the murdered activists, marchers and protesters are threatened today. Recent United States Supreme Court rulings, have allowed the very states that fought to deny voting rights the option to change or weaken the structures put in place to ensure those rights. Many states today consider voting as a “privilege” not a “right”. Creating an identification system to vote under the guise of voter integrity can’t be justified or explained. Just think, Oregon voters vote by mail. In 13 years with only a few people prosecuted for voter fraud with nearly 40 million votes cast. What a contrast to North Carolina, Texas and other Southern states.
The legacy and genius of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was so overwhelming that the forces that attempted to deny or alter the outcome of elections remain strong, determined and in many cases control state legislatures. We owe it to our posterity to work as Dr. King and his soldiers did in 1965.