On The Selma to Montgomery March for Voting Rights
Afro-Americans, Racial Equality and Supreme Court
Watching Congressman John Lewis addressing the rally on voting rights in front of the US Supreme Court yesterday I got a feeling of de ja vu. It was like America had turned back the clock to 1965, when John Lewis, then a leader of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, made a similar speech on the great March from Selma to Montgomery to gain the right to vote for black southerners. The vicious attack on lawfully assembled marchers, who were mostly Afro-Americans, as the attempted to cross the Edmund Pettis Bridge leading to the former capital of the old Confederacy, shocked the world as it was broadcast around the globe on television.
It proved to be a sucker play on the part of the dumb desperate rednecks trying to preserve their “southern way of life,” the foundation of which was the severe oppression of black folks. Instead they drove a stake through their own heart. The dim witted white officials who ordered the state police to arrest the advance of the demonstrators in a bloody melee of wanton police violence that was witnessed around the world didn’t understand that the world was changing, and what this implied for their racist apartheid system based on a Nazi like ideology of white supremacy.
The system of white world domination was rapidly crumbling due to the devastation Europeans wreaked on each other in the Second World War, and the rise of militant nationalism in Africa and Asia; the US was in a global struggle with the communist Soviet Bloc for the hearts and minds of the peoples in the newly independent nations. However we now know, by virtue of studies on American diplomacy during this period such as Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy, by Mary L, Dudziak, that those tasked with conducting American foreign policy considered the racist policies of the southern states a major stumbling block in their efforts to sell the American way of life to the leaders of emergent Third world nations.
For instance seven years before the passage of the historic 1964 Omnibus Civil Rights Bill, an Alabama court sentenced a 28 year old man black man named Jimmy Wilson to death for stealing two dollars. This verdict sparked such intense outrage against the US around the world that Secretary of State John Foster Dullies got the federal government to intervene and stop the execution. Everywhere he went Dullies was put on the defensive, when confronted with questions about white American barbarism in their treatment of Afro-Americans.
This was 1958, three years after the Bandung Conference, held in Bandung Indonesia, where the emergent non-white nations of Africa and Asia gathered to discuss their future in a new world order. The question that preoccupied the American government was which side would they choose to align with: The capitalist or communist bloc? It was a concern that would intensify as the Civil Rights movement against the legal caste system, which was the foundation of racial apartheid and white supremacy in the US, grew more vocal.
Indeed, Dean Rusk, President Kennedy’s Secretary of State, would write memos to Attorney Robert Kennedy complaining about how the racist outrages in the US, which the Russians made sure were widely publicized, was complicating his attempts to counter-Russian overtures to leaders of the new nations and their millions of non-white citizens. Hence, as Dr. Dudziak shows, addressing major Civil Rights issues like desegregation, became an imperative for victory in the Cold War and thus the political elite was willing address the problem with a new urgency.
The Bandung Conference
Africans and Asians Contemplate a New World
This was the political atmosphere in which John Lewis spoke at the 1965 rally in Montgomery in an attempt to persuade the Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act which President Lyndon Johnson would sign into law, with one of the most eloquent and impassioned speeches in presidential history on the equality of Afro-Americans before the law.
Now, almost a half century later, as a US Congressman, John Lewis is arguing in front of the Supreme Court in an effort to persuade them not to declare section five, the most important part of the Voting Rights Act, unconstitutional.
Once again the fate of Afro-Americans rest on a decision of the US Supreme Court, continuing a long established pattern in American race relations. In the Dread-Scott Decision of 1857, three years before the outbreak of Civil War, the Supreme Court ruled in a decision written by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney that “Black Men have no rights that a white man is bound to respect.” This left Afro-Americans in legal limbo, at the mercy of their racist white countrymen. Among other things it meant that free blacks could not claim American citizenship and often had to travel abroad without benefit of a passport.
During the Reconstruction period following the Civil War, the Dread-Scott decision was reversed with the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment on July 28, 1868. This amendment conferred citizenship on Afro-Americans and mandated equal protection under the law. In order to insure its ratification Congress made ratification a condition for the former confederate states to reenter the union. The Fifteenth Amendment, ratified in 1870, gave Afro-Americans the right to vote in quite explicit language: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.’
The Radical Republicans, led by Congressman Thaddeus Stevens and Senator Charles Sumner, was determined that the northern defeat of the southern Confederacy would not be a pyrrhic victory. So they passed a series of Civil Rights bills to buttress the new constitutional Amendments beginning in 1866, and culminating with the sweeping Civil Rights act of 1875.
This Act outlawed racial discrimination in all public accommodations: hotels, public conveyances and places of amusement open to the general public. The original draft of the Act by Senator Sumner included a provision outlawing segregation in public schools, but was struck from the bill because the Republicans didn’t believe it could pass.
Indefatigable Champion of Afro-American Freedom
Two years later the Compromise of 1877, a backroom deal struck by the Democrats and Republicans to resolve the disputed presidential election between Samuel J. Tilden and Rutherford B. Hayes, effectively ended congressional Reconstruction and removed the protection of federal Troops from the south, leaving the ex-slaves to the mercy of their former masters. A reign of terror was unleashed on Afro-Americans by armed white terrorists like the Ku Klux Klan all across the South. One of its main objectives was to drive Afro-Americans away from the polls. This great terror continued into the twentieth century.
Despite growing racist violence aimed at nullifying Afro-American gains during the period of Radical Reconstruction, four years later, in 1881, the Supreme Court declared the Civil Rights Bill of 1875 unconstitutional. This was followed 15 years later by the Plessey vs. Ferguson Decision, popularly known as the “Separate but Equal Decision,” which made racial segregation legal.
Taking it to the Streets
The Klan struts its stuff in the Nation’s Capital
Doing their devlish work in the South
Hence by the turn of the 20th century Afro-Americans had been stripped of virtually all the rights they had gained during the Reconstruction. The South accomplished its goal of removing black citizens from the voter’s roles through a combination of extra-legal white terror and enacting all sorts of bizarre restrictions on the right to vote, while the Congress and Supreme Court turned a blind eye.
Afro-Americans were fixed in a racial caste system segregated from their white fellow citizens in virtually all spheres of personal and civil life, interacting only as employer and employee, or domestic servants in white households. Separate but Equal remained the law of the land until the Court ruled in the Brown v. The Board of Education case of 1954, and passage of the Omnibus Civil Rights Act of 1964; which outlawed segregation in the public schools and public accommodations. In 1965 Congress passed the Voting Rights Act.
Together this legislation dismantled legal segregation and transformed southern politics. The heart and soul of the Voting Rights Act is Section Five, which requires states with a history of racial exclusion to submit any proposed changes in voting laws to the Justice Department for approval. We can see from all of the Republican chicanery in the last election – where there were numerous attempts to suppress the black and Hispanic vote – that we desperately need the powers of Section Five to be expanded and vigorously enforced. Not remanded as the state of Alabama, one of the worse historical offenders, is presently asking the Supreme Court to do.
In view of this reality the recent comments on voting rights by Justice Scalia, who is touted as a great legal mind, are the blathering of a charlatan or a fool. This pie faced, pumpkin headed, black robed, pootbutt burlesque on a great legal theorist, had the unmitigated gall to call the Voting Rights Act “a racial entitlement.” There is no shame in Scalia’s racist game!
A Racist Buffoon!
Earlier tonight Rev. Al Sharpton played a series of comments by leading right-wing radio bloviators like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, then juxtaposed them with Scalia mouthing the same putrid rhetoric…word for word. The presence of foul hearted blaggards like Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court is a result of appointments by Republican President’s….so much for the Morons who say it doesn’t matter whether there is a Democrat or Republican in the White House. Alas, they must share the responsibility for our present crisis.
Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
March 1, 2013