Here is what I remember: hundreds of people riding a train from DC to Montgomery, Alabama in the heat of a southern spring. Here is what I saw: priests and teenagers, college students and old men, professors and lawyers and dentists and ministers, pouring into the railroad car. I remember the long ride and standing along the back of the train feeling the warmth and sweet smell of flowers along the way that night. We sang songs, of course and we napped in each other’s arms and we watched as FBI agents surrounded our car and spoke on their walkie- talkies as we pulled into the station. We walked through the city to get to the organizing field where we were joined from others from all over the country. During that walk we passed stores where men and women stared, flinty eyed, their hands resting on the barrels of their guns. Dr. King went around shaking hands before we began the walk back into the capitol. By now this scene may feel like a cliché. Our bodies and our voices and our singing may feel like something so historical, so long gone and over, so unnecessary that this picture may be meaningless to many people who read this blog.
It was hot that day, and what I noticed as I walked, were the hesitant steps of those black Alabamans along the side of the road who entered our line that stretched back as far as you could see. I noticed too, as they stepped in with us and started their own clapping and singing, that their employers, the women who hired them as maids, the men who paid them for work on their gardens or in their fields, had that same flinty look I had seen directed toward us when we arrived. Yet I would get on a train later, I would leave and go back to the safety of my college dorm in DC. The people who lived there would stay on, now under a new threat for their participation.
As I arrived at the station upon my return, an old childhood friend, Timothy Lee Buxton, who was a minister by then, stopped us as we climbed down the steps from our hot car. He gathered us around him and told us that Viola Liuzzo, a housewife from Detroit, had been shot dead in her car that night in Alabama when she and Leroy Moton, a nineteen year old African American college student were returning from driving marchers back to their homes. Moton ended up in a ditch, covered in blood but still alive as the car crashed. He had not been hit. There was a silence in our huddle and then we parted to go our own ways in DC, Maryland or Virginia.
I know that the march was a key event in bringing about the Voting Rights Act that was just gutted by the Supreme Court. And I know that it helped to bring about changes that have allowed black congressmen and a higher percentage of black and brown voters, but I still feel the same danger I felt that day. I still feel, as I hear that Texas waited only two hours yesterday to put into place a draconian voter ID law and a gerrymandered district map, the utter terror of those times, those moments. I know it is a direct result of having this act in place, that we have made any progress at all in the enfranchisement of citizens of color in this country. And even with the act in place we have had to be particularly vigilant in regard to attempts to bar those from the polls who are poor or live in black or brown sections of our cities. Instead of gutting the bill, perhaps it should be extended, to include places like Ohio. Or as one friend said last night, why not make these restrictions part of every state’s oversight? Then we would not be singling out any state.
Ah. But then where would “states rights” be? States should not have the right to bar Americans from voting. Mississippi, Alabama, Texas, and others covered in the act do not have the right to go on without surveillance even now. It has not been fifty years yet. Changes, as over-reaching as this act, which traces its necessity back to slavery and Jim Crow, cannot be demolished with such suddenness, such blatant disregard for the still tenuous civil rights of its concerned people.
Justice Scalia called the Voting Rights Act a “racial entitlement”. When men like this decide on issues of justice, when such ignorance of the deep and abiding history of racism has the power to destroy the hard earned and gargantuan struggle to address the historical travesty of slavery in this country, we are in the hands of lunatics with no respect for the dignity of all of us.
Those of us who were there in Montgomery, those of us who marched for voters’ rights in Maryland and Virginia, and those who died way before we came along in towns and cities and rural farms and small churches all across the south, those who died and were buried in a river bank, those who were beaten to death on a Freedom Riders’ bus, those who were lynched or dragged in chains along a dirt road until they were no longer alive, all these and all of us, who work to make civil rights a reality here, all of you reading this, deserve at least a day. We can take one day to grieve what has happened in the highest court of the land here in the United States. So we do that. Maybe we put on Mavis Staples or maybe we have a long phone call or email with a friend from those years. Maybe we mope or maybe we become distracted and unfocused for this day.
After we give ourselves that, after we get up the next morning, we start all over again. Because we are standing on the shoulders of so many who gave their lives for this, who now, into their eighties and nineties fight for this still. We have known all along the fight was not over. We knew yesterday on the day this was decided that Texas or some other state would immediately begin the work of dismantling what we have done. We are not naïve, neither are we paranoid or “blowing this out of proportion”. We have seen that even now people of color face racism every day. We are under no allusions that as Justice Roberts believes, the voting rights act has done its job. We know that the only reason progress has been made is that the act has been in place. We know that without it, these rights become fragile, up for grabs, subject to the whim of states. And we know that forty –eight years is a short time in the lifespan of a country.
So we start again. We defeat Voter ID as Minnesota did, we go to work in states where people now will feel empowered to deny the vote. Who knows, perhaps we will march again. We may even sing those old songs that are trivialized today, but which gave us courage years ago. We may need them.