Last March, the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday and the Selma-to-Montgomery marches, Rev. Cornell William Brooks, President of the NAACP, declared they would give Congress 5 months to restore the Voting Rights Act; if it didn’t happen, “we may have to march from Selma to Washington”. Well, Congress didn’t so they did. On August 1, marchers set out from the foot of the Edmund Pettus (“Bloody Sunday”) Bridge on “America’s Journey for Justice” (J4J), a 47-day-long 1,002 mile voyage through five states of the old confederacy, ending in Washington, D.C. For each state, there was a different focus (Alabama–economic inequality, Georgia–education reform, South Carolina–criminal justice reform, North Carolina–voting rights and Virginia–youth). Despite little coverage in the corporate media, the J4J brought to the attention of grass-roots America the gutting of the 1965 Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court.
Three days before arriving in D.C., a 68-year old disabled Vietnam vet who called himself Middle Passage to honor the enslaved Africans forced to make the Atlantic Ocean crossing died suddenly on the march while unfurling the American flag he had carried from Selma for 920 miles. He was there for his late brother, a minister and civil rights activist, and for wounded vets, despite reportedly surviving open heart surgery five times. According to a profile in an August 24th article in The Guardian newspaper, Middle Passage had travelled more than 1,300 miles by bus to reach Selma and vowed to march every step. Shout-outs were repeatedly given for this latest martyr for the right to vote: “Middle Passage left a handprint on our heart”; President Brooks said “If a man was willing to die for the right to vote, why can’t our people stand up and vote?” Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee announced she will call out his name on the floor of the House Judiciary Committee.
Reaching D.C. on September 15, a few hundred marchers and supporters rallied at the foot of Abraham Lincoln’s statue, where Dr. Martin Luther King stood in 1963 at another March on Washington. The middle-of-the-road nature of some J4J partners was evident from the speakers: Common Cause, the Sierra Club, and Senators Tim Kaine, Ben Cardin and Mark Warner. Although socialist presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and long-time social justice activist Dick Gregory were at the podium, neither spoke.
That evening (the 52nd anniversary of the Birmingham, AL 16th Street Baptist Church bombing which killed four girls), hundreds gathered for an interfaith prayer service at the northwest D.C. synagogue housing the marchers for the night. In 1965, the Washington Hebrew Congregation’s rabbi participated in the Selma-to-Montgomery march; 2 of its current rabbis marched on the J4J. There were readings from the words of Dr. King and Nelson Mandela, singing of the African-American anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, and, in a flash, it was 1965 again, with 18 ministers, rabbis and an iman linking arms and leading the audience in singing “We Shall Overcome”. Marchers—NAACP members from as far as Eugene, OR, contingents of youth and veterans of the ‘60’s—and the synagogue’s parishioners were present, but less evident was representation from local grass-roots activists. Illustrating the know-how of an organization that has survived over 100 years since its founding by W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells-Barnett and others, the preparation and training for the September 16 Legislation Action Day was impressive, much better than similar efforts by some more generously-endowed advocacy organizations.
The next morning, several hundred participants gathered at the kick-off rally for the Congressional lobbying, with T-shirt slogans ranging from “I’m OK, God has my back” to the Communication Workers of America’s “I’m a Drum Major for Justice”. Organized labor did turn out; the American Postal Workers Union, American Transport Workers Union, and SEIU-1199 were visible. There was the next generation of “foot soldiers”, e.g., a large group of New York City high school students from the Frederick Douglass Academy in conjunction with the local NAACP chapter.
Long-time dean of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. John Conyers, introduced himself as “Rosa Park’s [former] boss”; “as a new member of Congress, people came to my office to see Rosa Parks, not [me].” Senator Ben Cardin said “…and don’t forget the millions of ex-offenders who are being denied the right to vote. We can change that here…” Selma-native Rep. Terri Sewell, the sponsor of the 2015 Voting Rights Advancement Act, declared “Restoration Tuesdays”, a weekly challenge to restore voting rights. Rep. Lee said “do not be offended by people saying Black lives matter; there is no ugliness in that.” Rep. Lee, a New York City native herself, told the crowd of the recent suicide of 22-year old Kalief Browder (a former Rikers Island inmate subjected to solitary confinement as an adolescent while held for years for allegedly stealing a backpack) and announced proposed federal legislation to ban solitary confinement of young people. (Solitary confinement has been associated with self-harm in research at Rikers Island by the New York City health department.)
Although the rally was addressed by these elected officials, Rev. Dr. William Barber, head of the North Carolina NAACP, declared “The NAACP has no permanent friends [in Congress], only permanent interests.” As electrifying as ever, Rev. Barber declared you won’t see yellow crime tape in Congress, but it is the “scene of the crime against democracy, [of] systemic racism and an attack on the poor…we need to investigate, find the guilty, and bring redemption…we’re going to have to lay down in these offices”. Reflecting the high level of activism for several years under his leadership, expressed in the Moral Mondays mass movement which has spread to other states, there was vibrant participation from North Carolina, including one marcher—with a “Black Votes Matter” sign who had joined in at the South Carolina border after telling Rev. Barber “I’ll be your legs”—a woman who happened to be 85 years old.
Participants disbursed to Congressional and Senate offices to promote a legislative agenda on voting rights and other priorities. Since the Supreme Court decision of 2013, Shelby County v. Holder, no state is required to comply with “preclearance”, in other words, states can dismantle voting rights protections without having to get permission from the federal government for any changes.
The proposed Voting Rights Advancement Act would expand and protect access to the polls with:
- Early voting
- Automatic registration via modern technology
- Strengthened provisional ballots
- Same-day registration
- Tougher penalties for voter intimidation and deception
- Ex-offender enfranchisement
- Youth and overseas voting
- Polling places on tribal lands as requested by Indian tribes.
The Voter Empowerment Act would protect access to the polls and increase accountability and integrity among election officials and workers. The Government by the People Act/Fair Elections Now Act would institute campaign finance reform and public financing.
In a presidential campaign which seems perhaps more ridiculous than ever, voting may have even less appeal than previously. In his 2015 book, Give Us the Ballot, Ari Berman describes how Robert Kennedy tried to coopt civil rights activists, attempting (unsuccessfully) to turn them from direct action to voter registration. Whether the concern is cooptation or sending the wrong message that the electoral process—and society—here are truly democratic or the lack of a working people’s party, the left has had an ambivalent and varying relationship to voting. But remembering the martyrdom and activism that forced Congress and LBJ to enact the 1965 VRA, you don’t have to like voting to love the Voting Rights Act. According to Rev. Barber, an attack on voting rights is an attack on educational reform, labor, health care and a living wage.
Also being advocated were the:
- Raise the Wage Act, to raise the federal minimum wage and index it to the median wage (but not to $15 an hour) and to eliminate sub-minimum wages for tipped workers
- Paycheck Fairness Act, updating and strengthening gender equality in pay
- End Racial Profiling Act, Law Enforcement Trust and Integrity Act and proposed legislation for expansion of video surveillance of law enforcement activities, prohibiting profiling, mandating data collection and additional training for cops and punishing violators. (Such surveillance of the use of force was also recommended in the recent Ferguson [MO] Commission Report. A hot topic among social epidemiologists is exploring how to obtain and study such data in order to assess the public health impact of police behavior.
NAACP President Brooks said “All lives matter, whether your skin is Black or your uniform is blue”; he considers police unions the biggest obstacle to change. A left analysis of the fundamental role of police in a capitalist society precludes training as a remedy. But since, realistically, the police aren’t going away any time soon, addressing police misconduct has support. Interestingly, expansion of video surveillance of cops (e.g., body cameras) would be tied to civil liberties protection in the legislation. However, critics point out there’s plenty of video footage seen by millions of clear and egregious examples of police violence but that hasn’t ensured police indictments or prevented acquittals.)
- A strengthened Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act would improve conditions for detained juveniles, fund education for incarcerated youth and provide direction for localities to reduce racial and ethnic inequities.
- Student Success Act/Elementary and Secondary Education Act would provide for accountability, transparency, resource equity and a strong federal role (which are vague enough to include proposals progressive education activists might not favor); and Pell grant expansion, including grants for incarcerated students.
Coincidentally, IFCO/Pastors for Peace and other organizations were also lobbying that day for the removal of the blockade against Cuba, prior to an all-day organizing conference on Cuba and the campaign to free Puerto Rican independentista and long-time prisoner Oscar Lopez Rivera, the “Boricua Mandela”. (In an example of unity and cross-fertilization of movements, at a related ecumenical and cultural celebration at the Florida Avenue Baptist Church in D.C., Rev. Lennox Yearwood, President of the HipHop Caucus and a veteran of many social justice and media movements, who had just returned from the Birmingham church bombing anniversary commemoration and Charleston, described his formula for getting young people involved in social justice movements: “keep it real, relevant, revolutionary and resourced” (the latter because “he who funds you is he who controls you”). He denounced the “Corporate Black Caucus” (aka Congressional Black Caucus) as “entangled with those hurting us”. Other speakers included a minister who described Cuba as “the epitome of nonviolent resistance”—resistance against the United States.
According to Rev. Barber, we may be entering the third Reconstruction (the second being the civil rights movement of the 1950’s-60’s). Yet, he points out, we have fewer voting rights now than 50 years ago. As usual, it’s a best times/worst times thing. From #blacklivesmatter to anti-mass incarceration, to $15/hour to the abomination of Confederate insignias in public places, response to racial injustice is in the moment. However, the recent massacre in Charleston at the Emanuel AME Church illustrates that white supremacist violence was not defeated by the second Reconstruction. NYC saw on September 18 the first concert in 27 years of the country music band Alabama, known for both its championing of the working class—as in the song, “40-Hour Week” —and its frequent use of the Confederate battle flag and incorporation of slyly-coded references to white supremacy in its songs. Whether Alabama’s national tour will serve to rally slavery apologists remains to be seen (its website for the current tour is devoid of any Confederate images). But popular culture can also normalize progressive social change. In “I Believe the South is Gonna Rise Again”, the Taylor Swift of the 1970’s, country music superstar Tanya Tucker, sang
“… I see wooded parks and big skyscrapers
Where dirty rundown shacks stood once before
I see sons and daughters of sharecroppers
But they're not picking cotton any more
But more important I see human kindness
As we forget the bad and keep the good
A brand new breeze is blowing 'cross the southland
And I see a brand new kind of brotherhood
Yes, I believe the south is gonna rise again
Oh, but not the way we thought it would back then
I mean everybody hand-in-hand…”
Or as Rev. Barber and his co-activists say, “Forward together, not one step back”.