When Civil Rights Were on the Rise
Rozga, Margaret, The Humanist
IN THE UNITED STATES we proclaim our allegiance to democracy, even fight a war in Iraq to establish and extend democracy in the Middle East. Under these terms, opposition at home to voting rights strikes a contradictory pose, a fact for which I am happy and grateful.
Rumbles of opposition to the renewal of the Voting Rights Act were heard this past summer and grew loud enough for Republican congressional leaders to postpone a vote on the measure on June 22, 2006. These rumblings sent shivers of apprehension through civil rights backers, including those who worked to ensure passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. I am one of these 1965 civil rights workers. I breathe easier since the renewal is accomplished fact. But laws on the books may not be laws realized on the street. Some have come to this realization recently, while some of us have carried it with us for forty or more years. It pays to remember. I cannot forget.
In Bullock County, Alabama, about fifty miles southeast of Montgomery, I sweated out the long, hot June and July before President Lyndon Baines Johnson finally signed the Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965. As a college sophomore I chose to forego a summer waitressing job to volunteer with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's Summer Community Organizing and Political Education (SCOPE) project. I was a civil rights worker, an outside agitator to those who resisted our work.
During that summer of 1965, along with four other students from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I worked to encourage African Americans in Bullock County, Alabama, to register to vote. I saw the harassment and delaying tactics first hand. I learned from local leaders about the history of African Americans' efforts to achieve the vote in Bullock County. It was a history of denial and delay.
In the 1950s African Americans attempting to register to vote needed someone already on the rolls to vouch for them; the catch was that any one voter could vouch for only three people a year. Since few blacks had ever been able to register and no whites would vouch for blacks, most other blacks were kept from registering under this system. A lawsuit brought by Aaron Sellers resulted in the courts outlawing this policy, but the Sellers family was threatened and local registrars could and did find other delaying tactics. Challenging each of these tactics separately took effort, energy, and all too much precious time. The 1965 Voting Rights Act addressed these issues in a comprehensive way. It brought joy, relief, and change to Bullock County and enabled the election of African Americans to public office.
Local leaders, volunteers, and SCOPE recruits all worked hard to make this change happen. Canvassing from house to house in a mostly rural county meant long days walking in the hot sun, a tedium that sometimes evaporated with a warm welcome from a black family and other times was wiped out by terror with the sudden appearance of hostile whites.
For most of June we had lived in the homes of activist families and worked near Midway where Aaron Sellers, Wilbon Thomas, and other local leaders who had invited us to the county also lived. We gathered one early July morning in front of a county map. Push pins dotted most of the roads in the southern part of the county, those areas we had already canvassed. "Look here" Benny pointed out. "What about Perote? We haven't been to Perote at all. And Smuteye. We need to get over there, too."
I still am in love with the names of the local communities in Bullock County and have to smile as I repeat them to myself again. In 1965 these names carried important numerical significance, each locale representing so many potential voters to be registered. Everyone agreed that we needed to work Perote and Smuteye. But someone raised another question at that strategy session: "What about Union Springs?" Up to that point we had worked outside the county seat where it was harder for local opponents, including the local police, to monitor our every move. …