“The climactic conflicts always were fought and won on Alabama soil.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.
In my previous post, I marveled at Democrat Doug Jones’s win in Alabama’s special Senatorial election. The Republican Roy Moore, despite opposition from his own party and accusations of sexual misconduct with underage girls, would still have won the election had not a powerful voting bloc shown up in force.
Black Alabamians resisted Roy Moore and voted in such numbers that the Democrat was elected — the first in the state since 1992.
But the journey from slavery to suffrage was a long one; the results from December’s special election was over two centuries in the making.
So how did black Alabamians go from hopelessly disenfranchised as late as 1965 to election-disrupters in 2017?
After southern states enacted multiple barriers to voting for blacks, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People formed in 1909 to combat racial discrimination and black disenfranchisement. It went after local and state jurisdictions in court, including a successful 1915 lawsuit against Oklahoma to declare grandfather clauses — which stated a person could only vote if her grandfather had been able to vote — unconstitutional.
World War II
As in previous wars, in World War II black Americans fought in segregated units. Many of them saw Europe for the first time and were embraced by the Europeans as liberators and heroes.
“These men have been sent to this country to help in its defence, and whatever their race or creed they should be entitled to the same treatment as our own soldiers.” — Letter to the Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette during World War II
Coming home to a racist country after such a warm welcome, black service members were so disillusioned by the contrast they started agitating for equal treatment. The “Double V” was the rallying symbol: victory against fascism abroad and victory against inequality at home. Army serviceman James Thompson wrote:
“Being an American of dark complexion and some 26 years, these questions flash through my mind: ‘Should I sacrifice my life to live half American?’ ‘Will things be better for the next generation in the peace to follow?’…‘Is the kind of America I know worth defending?’”
The Civil Rights Movement
The NAACP and other groups were already fighting for racial equality by the time Rosa Parks defiantly took a seat in the front of a Montgomery, Alabama bus in 1955. But Parks’s arrest and the ensuing year-long boycott jump-started a decade of activism.
These included such seminal events as the integration of Little Rock High School; the sit-ins at lunch counters and other businesses; the integration of Mississippi universities; the March on Washington; and the freedom rides in the south.
A pivotal drive of the Civil Rights Movement was the effort to register blacks to vote. Activists understood early on that the right to vote was the key to changing lives of black southerners in general and black Alabamians in particular.
Leaders in the Civil Rights Movement targeted next-door Mississippi in 1964 for a registration drive of black residents. It was dangerous work. White police officers and community members intimidated, beat up, or sometimes killed black registrants and civil rights workers.
When Rosie Head tried to register, she was threatened with police dogs. She recounts:
“The chancellor clerk had said to me, ‘Now, I know you know better!’ He knew my grandparents. ‘I’ve known your people for years and years, and I know you know better. What are you doing out here anyway?’ And so, I told him what I wanted. And he said, ‘You go home and do like your mama and your grandmama did. You don’t need to come out here. This ain’t for black folk.’”
From Selma to Montgomery
In September 1963, four girls were killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham. (As a federal prosecutor, Doug Jones in 2000 indicted two former Klan members who carried out the attack, who were later convicted.) In 1963, the bombing spurred leaders in a new push for voting rights.
“We felt that if blacks in Alabama had the right to vote, that they could protect black children. … [And we] promised ourselves and each other, that if it took twenty years, or as long as it took, we weren’t going to stop working on it and trying, until Alabama blacks had the right to vote.” — Diane Nash
In an effort to publicize the disenfranchisement of black citizens, activists organized a 54-mile march from Selma to the capital Montgomery. Five hundred twenty five to six hundred marchers started out on March 7, 1965, but were met by Alabama state troopers and a county posse at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The troopers attacked and the broadcast footage stunned viewers around the country.
Voting Rights Act
In the wake of what came to be known as “Bloody Sunday,” President Lyndon Johnson spoke to a joint session of Congress.
“The Constitution says that no person shall be kept from voting because of his race or his color. We have all sworn an oath before God to support and to defend that Constitution: We must now act in obedience to that oath.” — Lyndon B. Johnson
Two days later, the Minority and Majority Leaders in the Senate introduced the “Voting Rights Act of 1965.” The measure passed both houses, and on August 6, with Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, John Lewis and Amelia Boynton present, President Johnson signed it into law.
And in December 2017, because they wielded the power that racists feared them wielding, black Alabamans turned the vote and put a liberal in the Senate. Roy Moore did his best to discredit the results by filing a lawsuit. Alabamian officials, however, brushed away the attempt, and Doug Jones was sworn in on January 3.
There remain irregularities about the voting process in Alabama that concern many of today’s civil rights activists. Freed felons now face a new “poll tax” to regain the right to vote, and black votes remain suppressed due to gerrymandering.
But in this special election, the Civil Rights Movement, two centuries in the making in the making, gave black voters the power to be heard. Doug Jones has that legacy to thank for his new job.
I am currently working on a book about Ah Toy, the first Chinese brothel madam in gold rush San Francisco.
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