Citizen Green: Voting rights from Selma to Raleigh

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Jordan Greenby Jordan Green

With an eye towards history, the Rev. William Barber announced the resumption of Moral Monday protests when the short session of state General Assembly convenes on May 19.

The state NAACP leader, who is at the forefront of a broad-based coalition challenging the conservative Republican agenda of economic policies favoring the wealthy and corporations at the expense of the poor, along with restrictive voting laws and a slate of other regressive initiatives, said during an April 30 conference call with reporters that the Moral March held in Raleigh in February was the “largest civil-rights gathering in the South since Selma.”

Estimates of the crowd size at the Moral March ranged from 14,000 to 80,000. Almost 50 years ago, on March 25, 1965, 25,000 people marched into the Alabama state capital of Montgomery after departing from Selma five days earlier. In previous attempts to march from Selma to Montgomery, civil-rights protesters had been attacked by sheriff’s deputies and Klan members with nightsticks, clubs and tear gas. The marches arose out of frustration that after two years of work, activists were not able to register a single black voter in Selma. According to Taylor Branch’s monumental Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years: 1963-65, in January 1965 only 57 black citizens had managed to apply for voter registrations and none had been approved. The chief of police ordered the arrest of 30 “excess” registration applications on one particular day, and marchers were often arrested without charge. Such were the barriers to voting.

The blood of black people aspiring to freedom and white allies that spilled in Alabama pressured the federal government to take action, and only five months after what became known as Bloody Sunday, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act.

Last year, the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. The stricken section had set forth specific jurisdictions with a history of electoral discrimination — including all of the Deep South and several counties in North Carolina — that were required to obtain prior approval from the federal government before making changes to their electoral systems.

The state General Assembly already had a voter ID bill in the pipeline, and two months later it was signed into law, with additional provisions reducing the number of days for early voting and eliminating same-day registration. The Rev. Barber likes to call the bill “the monster voter-suppression law”; it is widely considered the most restrictive in the country.

As in Selma almost 50 years ago, a new movement — call it civil rights, progressive or fusionist — is coalescing in North Carolina, drawing on the support of the federal government and looking to shift the course of the entire nation.

Joining the state NAACP’s lawsuit against North Carolina’s new election law last December, US Attorney General Eric Holder said, “The Justice Department expects to show that the clear and intended effects of these changes would contract the electorate and result in unequal access to participation in the political process on account of race.”

Barber and his allies are feeling the wind at their backs with a US District Court decision on April 29 striking down Wisconsin’s voter ID law; Penda Hair, a lawyer for the state NAACP, said the plaintiffs plan to cite the decision in their efforts to overturn the North Carolina law. They are also encouraged by an order from US Magistrate Judge Joi Elizabeth Peake requiring the state to turn over emails and other communications that might reveal the legislative intent behind the law.

Noting that “the spirit of this movement has spread” to Georgia, South Carolina and other states, Barber said he plans to announce a coordinated event later this year in 11 Southern states with the highest levels of poverty and most regressive legislation on the books to thwart the upward mobility of the poor.

In addition to taking to the streets and the courts, the Moral Monday activists are also mobilizing voters, with each of the 943 people arrested in Raleigh last year having taken a pledge to register new voters. There’s little likelihood that they will effectively challenge state lawmakers, who have drawn themselves into voter-proof districts. But Barber and other movement leaders expect to exert their influence in the US Senate election this November.

“It’s not a matter of just registering voters; it’s also about educating voters about how important it is to vote,” said Maria Palmer, a former NC A&T University administrator and now a member of Chapel Hill Town Council. “People say to me: ‘I’m not political.’ I say to them: ‘Do know anybody who’s been cut off of unemployment? Do you have any teachers in your family?’ They say, ‘Yes, I’ll take that voter guide.’ They’re angry and they’re realizing that the people in Raleigh don’t have our best interests at heart.”