Last Sunday marked the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when 600 protestors, led by Martin Luther King, Jr., began marching from Selma to Birmingham in support of voting rights. They were met on the Edmund Pettis Bridge by Alabama State troopers dispatched by segregationist Governor George Wallace, who attacked them with tear gas, leather whips, and billy clubs, an unprovoked act of violence whose bloodshed outraged most Americans and was a major factor in the subsequent passage by Congress of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
When I picked up my newspaper on the following Monday, the front page featured coverage of the celebration of that anniversary, highlighted by a photo of President Obama hugging Representative John Lewis of Georgia, who marched alongside MLK, Jr., and was bloodied during the tragic events of that historical day. And as my mind flooded with memories of the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement, the question Have we overcome? also trailed into view and set off an intense reflection.
Well, we have done better, I concluded. After Brown v. Board of Education desegregated schools, we further reduced discrimination in commerce and transportation via the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and with respect to voting courtesy of the Voting Rights Act. And, I noted with a smile, in that photo my eyes were focused on the President of the United States—an African-American. That’s something I wasn’t sure I’d ever live to see, flowed my next thought, so yes, we have progressed, some positive change has occurred. But, Have we overcome? still lingered to narrow my smile.
In view of recent events, the answer to that question is a resounding no! First off, in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the key enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act, removing the Federal Government’s authority to supervise electoral requirements in our states and insure that discriminatory practices were not in play. Then, further, as David Love reported in via the Tribune News Service, “the Tea Party-led Republican Party has made voter disenfranchisement and suppression a top priority. Voter ID laws across the country have put up obstacles for blacks, Hispanics, Asians, the elderly, young people, and others. Some state legislatures have reduced voting days, including the Sunday before Election Day, when black churches organize campaigns to go to the polls. Moreover, as Al Jazeera has reported, Republican officials in 27 states have initiated a program that could purge 7 million voters from the rolls, particularly brown and black Americans.”
And, why? To prevent voter fraud is the answer provided, despite the fact that study after study after study reveals that voter fraud is so insignificant as to be almost non-existent. The real reason is that the voters sought to be removed from the polls overwhelmingly vote for Democratic Party candidates!
So, a new version of the poll tax, calling into mind the phrase, the more things change, the more they stay the same. And what is truly tragic is that most Americans, including most of our citizens who identify themselves as Republicans, are not in favor of retreating from the racial progress America has made, but are witnessing a regression fostered by a small, highly vocal, and extremely well funded right-wing minority that has hijacked the Republican Party and is dictating dangerously undemocratic policies that threaten to undermine the fundamental right to vote of millions of their fellow citizens.
No, indeed, we have not yet overcome. Race remains a huge problem in America, and if anyone doubts that sad fact, recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, make the truth of that assertion clear and undeniable.
In a community that is 67% black, the police department is almost exclusively white. An accident? No. And after a thorough investigation of the events and the culture surrounding the Criminal Justice System in Ferguson, on March 5th the Justice Department issued a scathing report, describing the Ferguson police and Municipal Court “as a system whose primary function was to make poor African Americans pay as many fines and fees as possible for petty offenses, real or invented.”
After reading accounts of this report in The Oregonian, once again that haunting phrase, the more things change, the more they stay the same, echoed into mind and triggered a vivid memory of the first jury trial I was involved in when I was a Deputy Public Defender in Compton, California, almost half a century ago. Depicted in detail in my novel, Gideon’s Children, the main character, Matthew Harris is defending a male African American charged with having been drunk in public. And when the jury panel of 200 persons from which twelve would be selected for trial is seated in the courtroom, Matt is stunned by his observation that not one of them is black, even though the community from which they are drawn is upwards of 80% African American.
The good news is that while Matt Harris was defeated by the stacked deck a half century ago, today the outrageous situation in Ferguson is being corrected. In the past few days, the officials responsible for the conspiracy of discrimination at work there have resigned or been removed, including the city manager, the police chief, and the municipal court judge. Unfortunately, the anger from years of persecution has unleashed violence from a few members of the community, resulting in two police officers being shot. Most hopefully calm will prevail so that plans for a new and better government in Ferguson can be implemented. I also believe that it would be helpful if those persons responsible for the utterly despicable actions in Ferguson were prosecuted for civil rights violations, thereby sending a message to all who would engage in like actions.
What worries me is that if the regressive forces at work are allowed to prevail, and millions of people of color are disenfranchised, and other Ferguson-like conditions are not ferreted out and remedied, then violence of a more significant magnitude will occur. For if a huge segment of our populace is not allowed to participate, and also feels that the Criminal Justice System is targeting them for grossly unfair treatment, then the respect for the Rule of Law necessary for it to govern disappears.
All of us lead busy lives. But each of us needs to make the time necessary to contact our local, state, and federal representatives, and let them know that we are adamant in our desire for a new Voting Rights Act that insures voter participation by all segments of our society, and urges them to foster and nourish programs designed to promote excellent relationships between police and the communities which they serve.