Friday, February 28, 2020

Hank Sanders: Sketches #1707 - They said it could not be done, but we continue to do it

  They said it could not be done, but we did it. It was 1964, and the Civil Rights Act had just been enacted by Congress and signed by President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders were thankful, but they were still pressing for legislation to ensure voting rights for Black people. Voting was the last legal right being clearly denied to Black people in the United States of America. The highest political officials and others said that no such legislation could possibly pass Congress on the heels of the most comprehensive civil rights legislation ever. They said it could not be done, but we did it.

  The 1964 Civil Rights Act was a momentous piece of landmark legislation. It outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It also prohibited racial segregation in schools, employment, and public accommodations. It even prohibited unequal application of voter registration requirements. That was a whole lot, but it did not adequately address the legal roadblocks to voting by Black people. Voting is the one right that truly protects all other rights. Many White political leaders were rightly feeling good about this great accomplishment that outlawed nearly every legal element of White supremacy except for obstacles to voting. These leaders said additional civil rights simply could not be enacted at the time. They said it could not be done, but we did it.

  We have to go way back to fully understand why these national leaders were so sure it could not be done. Black people were completely prohibited from voting if they were enslaved but generally prohibited even when they were not enslaved. Many leaders of the various anti-slavery societies fighting against slavery still did not want Black people to be able to vote after they were freed. This was the status of things not just in the South but in the North. The obstacles to voting have deep and powerful and long roots. They said it could not be done, but we did it.

  When the Civil War brought a de facto end to slavery, the 13th Amendment was enacted to abolish legal slavery (except those convicted of certain felony crimes). This amendment was ratified in December of 1865. Then, the 14th Amendment was enacted in July of 1868, providing equal rights to formerly enslaved people in July 1868. It was not until February 1870 that the right to vote was secured by Black people. It was the most critical right because it helped protect all other rights. They said it could not be done, but we did it.

  It was not long after emancipation that widespread violence, including lynchings, was perpetrated by the Klan, the White League, the Red Shirts, and economic intimidation and oppressive laws wiped out the right to vote for Black people in much of the country. These laws included literacy tests, poll taxes, grandfather clauses, etc. There were even state constitutional amendments that circumscribed Black people's right to vote. Not even a U.S. Constitutional Amendment could protect the right to vote for African Americans. This hard situation lasted for nearly 100 years, but Black people continue to fight for the right to vote. They said it could not be done, but we did it.

  The long history of Black voter suppression still informed the moment in 1964. President Lyndon Baines Johnson said that voting rights legislation could not pass the United States Congress. Every congressional leader said it could not be done. Every major national newspaper said no such legislative could pass Congress in 1964-65. But some Black leaders and a limited number of White leaders were determined that the moment was now. They said it could not be done, but we did it.

  Although people were struggling for voting rights all over the South, Selma was chosen as the site to focus the fight for Black voting rights. At first there was great reluctance about Selma because of the widespread belief that, “Whites were too mean, and Blacks were too scared.” Bernard Lafayette and Colia Liddell Lafayette were the first organizers to come to Selma. Both were members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). However, they found that African Americans had been struggling for voting rights since the 1920s, when the Dallas County Voter League was founded by C. J. Adams. They said it could not be done, but we did it.

  Struggles for voting rights raged across the South and well beyond. However, these voting rights struggles came to a head in Selma. Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot by Alabama State Troopers in Marion on February 18, 1965. He died in the Selma Good Samaritan Hospital a week later. In response to the shooting death, some 550 marchers tried to march from Selma to Montgomery to protest Jackson’s death and demand the right to vote. It was Sunday, March 7, 1965. The marchers were brutally beaten by state troopers, sheriff deputies,and others. There was so much blood. The people immediately dubbed this day "Bloody Sunday".

  Thousands came to Selma from around the country. There was a second attempted march called Turnaround Tuesday. Reverend James Reeb from Massachusetts was beaten to death the next day. After a court fight, the Selma-to-Montgomery March commenced on March 21 and ended on March 25 at the State Capitol in Montgomery. Thirty-five thousand gathered to hear Dr. King deliver his famous “How Long, Not Long speech”. Viola Liuzzo was shot to death on the Selma-to-Montgomery highway after the march. They said it could not be done, but we did it.

  On August 6, 1965, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. It was sweeping legislation that included the Section 5 Preclearance Section. The Voting Rights Act was amended five times, the last being in 2006. However, in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in the Shelby County v. Holder case. Once again, the right to vote of Black people was set back. Many laws were immediately implemented to suppress the right to vote. After all these centuries, Black people are still fighting for the full right to vote. They said it could not be done, but we continue to do.

EPILOGUE – Voting is the strongest right to protect all other rights. It is the right we have to fight for the hardest. And Black people have to fight far harder than any other people. We have been fighting for voting rights for centuries, and we will continue to fight into the future. They said it could not be done, but we continue to do it.

  About the author: Hank Sanders represented District 23 in the Alabama Senate from 1983 to 2018.

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