One of the most painful scenes in Ava DuVernay’s film “Selma,” about Martin Luther King Jr.’s protest marches in Selma, Ala., shows nurse Annie Lee Cooper, played by Oprah Winfrey, being turned away from registering to vote because she can’t name the state’s 67 county judges. Such ploys to block black people from voting were used in the South even after the 1964 Civil Rights Act. They ensured that unequal laws and systems endured, since elected officials were answerable only to the whites who had elected them. It took the Voting Rights Act in 1965 to make that civil right binding. Yet today that victory that legions of volunteers fought for is under attack.
Last year the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a Texas law to require voters to show photo ID cards. The law had been challenged by the U.S. Justice Department and struck down by a federal judge who said 600,000 registered voters in Texas had no government-issued ID, and that African-Americans were three times as likely as whites to not have one. But the law was upheld by a federal Court of Appeals. Texas found ammunition in a 2013 Supreme Court ruling, Shelby County (Alabama) v. Holder, striking down a section of the Voting Rights Act that had required states with a history of voter discrimination to get federal approval before changing voting procedures. Various states have responded with new voting restrictions.
“If you live in rural Mississippi, and you have no license, you have no ID,” says Patti Miller, who just completed a documentary about the role of Iowans in the 1964 Freedom Summer. She noted that Hispanics in urban areas faced the same problem.
“Iowans Return to Freedom Summer,” depicts five young white people, including Miller, who grew up in overwhelmingly white Iowa and answered a call from the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee to aid desegregation efforts in Mississippi. They were among 700 college students from around the country who flocked to Mississippi to help register black voters, teach black children in Freedom Schools and organize community centers. The experiences were life changing.
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“I’m not sure if that sense of purpose has happened since,” Miller said at a preview of her film Monday. “It affects everything you do, your attitudes and outlook on life.”
For Marcia Moore, one of the Freedom Summer volunteers, seeing how hard Mississippi fought to keep black people down brought tough reckonings about her own country. Richard Beymer (who subsequently played Tony in “West Side Story”) found that summer a joyful time, even though “we were at war, in a sense.” He lived with seven other civil rights workers in a rented house without indoor toilet or shower, all resolute about confronting racism. Stephen L. Smith never fully got over a severe beating at the hands of Mississippi police. Yet he remained politically active, becoming the first American to burn his draft card. All reflect on their experiences in Miller’s film.
There were disagreements within SNCC about including white students, Miller recalls. “A lot felt it should be only blacks. But whenever white people were involved, the press covered it.”
The white students’ activism also “lit a fire” that prompted black people to start protesting, observes Lenray Gandy, a black Mississippi native, in Miller’s film. The movie depicts a Mississippi that didn’t just force blacks and whites to use separate drinking fountains and waiting rooms, but where black people weren’t allowed to try on shoes at the shoe store. A black man couldn’t walk down a street where a white woman was walking. Blacks couldn’t sit in the front of a bus and were expected to keep their eyes downcast when addressing whites.
Being unable to vote was the deprivation that ensured all the others stayed in place. Registrars would use a 95-question test to reject prospective black voters, according to Shel Stromquist, now a professor emeritus from the University of Iowa who took part in Freedom Summer and appears in the film.
Miller formed the Keeping History Alive Foundation because, as the saying goes, those who can’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it. But remembering may not be the problem for politicians enacting current voting restrictions. More likely they see some political advantage to suppressing the minority vote. So the question is whether fair-minded Americans will insist that Congress pass legislative fixes to ensure all qualified Americans have their voices heard.
Miller will forever be affected by the power of committed black and white people living, cooking, eating, working and risking their lives together. She went on to work with King’s organization in Chicago. So it’s disheartening for her to visit college campuses these days and see black and white students self-segregate in dining halls.
It’s easy to get complacent about battles won long ago. But rights not safeguarded can be eroded or lost. Celebrating King’s birthday, as we do this week, shouldn’t just mean reflecting on how far we’ve come but on where we’re going and what it will take to stay on track.
To reach Rekha Basu, a columnist for The Des Moines Register, send email to email@example.com.