Voting Rights Assault: Heard This Song Before
By The Rev. Joseph Lowery
Vol. 18, No. 1, 1996 pp. 8-10
In 1964, following the passage of the Public Accommodations Act, I was among a delegation that went with Martin King to see President Johnson to talk about voting rights. We were very concerned that there were less than three-hundred black elected officials in the United States and almost none in the South. President Johnson told us in his Texas drawl that we just had won one significant piece of legislation and there was no way in the world, this soon, following the ’64 Act that we would have a voting rights act. “Y’all be patient and come back later.” “Yessir, cap’n.” And we went on back to Birmingham.
In the A. G. Gaston Motel we drew up the blueprint for a Selma campaign. SNCC had preceded us into Selma, but not much had yet happened so we decided to move massively into Selma with the voting rights campaign. And what President Johnson said he couldn’t do, we did. From Selma to Montgomery, with reverberations across the country, we wrote the Voting Rights Act of 1965. We went back to see Mr. Johnson and said, “Here Mr. President, you said you couldn’t write it, we done writ it for you. Sign it.” You recall how he went on national television and in that same Texas drawl, signed the Act and said, “We shall overcome.”
The Voting Rights Act was born in movement. If it is to be preserved and extended, it will be in movement. It will not be simply in dialogue nor just in litigation. For it is an expression of the soul of democracy and it must be reiterated and reaffirmed in the hearts and minds and souls of the people. And that only happens in movements. So if we are serious about the current assault on voting rights, we will gear up for movement.
As we look at where we are today it seems I’ve heard this song before. Look at today and look at the close of the nineteenth century. Isn’t it a familiar tune? We watched the tumbling towers of democracy and the disenfranchising of black voters. We watched legislative lynchings, judicial rape of freedom and justice, and the rise of terrorism to enforce a political agenda. So, when we talk about the 1990s, we could very well be talking about part of the 1890s. We look today at the destabilization of democratic institutions, the disenfranchisement of black voters, Supreme Court decisions such as Miller v. Johnson. We witness the outlawing of majority black districts and Latino districts.
We talk about collusion between the political and business forces. Are we sure we’re not talking about the 1890s? The Republican-controlled Congress reduces taxes for the rich while the rich reduce jobs for working people. Political and business forces export jobs and merge corporations to expand unemployment and reduce services to poor communities. When you talk about the rise of terrorism to enforce a political agenda, are you sure you’re not talking about angry men bombing federal buildings on one hand and blasting affirmative action on the other? Are you talking about a new militia mentality including skinheads and extremists and police departments with Mark Fuhrman mentalities? Some who sound like, act like, legislate like, adjudicate like they are afflicted with a Mark Fuhrman mentality. The rejection of the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s recommendation to eliminate disparities in sentencing between crack and cocaine offenders is a legislative lynching in 1995 as legislators lynched in 1895.
So we have to clear our vision to reclaim the momentum toward justice and democracy. We must wake up,
rise up, march up, run up, fly up, sign up, vote up and vote out these forces who are assaulting workers rights, voting rights, women’s rights, and American justice.
We must understand that the assault and retreat of the 1990s transcends race and color. The timing of the assault on affirmative action is not accidental. It is happening at the same time that we continue to see mega-mergers, corporate downsizing, and the exporting of jobs.
If you can keep angry white men confused and directing their anger mistakenly against issues of “affirmative action,” “preferential treatment,” or “reverse discrimination” they tend to be less than vigilant at understanding the corporate agenda. I suggest that while blacks and other minorities are the first fired, when the dust of the whirlwind settles, more whites will lose jobs and the crisis in health care will impact more white families. We must help those who are hoodwinked to understand that the entire body politic will taste the bitter cup of economic violence.
In the black community, we know what it means to be working more and earning less. We know what it means to say the faster I run the behinder I get. So we must strengthen the coalition of conscience. We must find ways to break through the barriers of mistrust and suspicion between black and white. We must join in fighting policies that export jobs while expanding poverty here. The pain of another Reconstruction is not limited to inflicting pain upon blacks. It is painful to all middle and low income Americans.
We must understand that this current assault on voting rights is designed to narrow the electorate to protect special interests. What to think of a Supreme Court that declares that race-conscious remedies for race-based discrimination are unconstitutional? That makes no sense at all. The Supreme Court has five confused people.
What hurts me so much about Clarence Thomas is that he’s from Georgia. Pinpoint, Georgia. We felt that once this dude got out, once he got on the Supreme Court, good God, if ever anybody, in this life, is free at last, surely, “he gon’ remember who he be.” He will be free of political restraints and he will have made it.
I believe that when Clarence Thomas got out of law school he looked at two highways up: one was crowded. All the members of the black caucuses, legislators from Georgia, North Carolina, everybody was over there. Wasn’t nobody over here on this other side. He said, “You know, shoot, I’m getting over here. It ain’t crowded.” And he did. He went right straight on up non-stop. But, once he got there .. .
When he was nominated we went and met with him.We met for two-and-a-half hours. Among other things, he said, “Dr. Lowery, I believe in what Dr. King stood for. I believe in what you represent. And you will not be ashamed of me if I am confirmed.” So we didn’t fight him. He had the votes anyway.
But I am ashamed of him. And I have written him that I’m ashamed of him. And he has become to the black community and to this country, what Benedict Arnold was to the nation, a deserter. What Judas was to Jesus, a betrayer. And what Brutus was to Caesar, an assassin.
To say that we must dismantle majority-black and majority-Latino districts is a new variation on an old trick to dilute and control black leadership. Nothing is more disgusting than to listen to these people use Martin Luther King’s comments about character and content and color-blindness to justify their madness.
This country has never been color-blind. The old phrase “without regard to race or color” always means that folks of color get left without. Unfortunately, history shows that without predominantly black districts, blacks don’t get elected. That has changed in some instances. And the evidence is not promising. Gary Franks said the other day when we were in a discussion on CNN that he didn’t want his people to have to go to a black district to get elected. I told him I didn’t want my children to have to go to Connecticut to get elected either.
Let me say a couple of other things. First, I want to talk about the spiritual undergirding that has to exist in this movement. I want to start with black elected officials. I’m proud of the fact that most black elected officials have conducted themselves with dignity and integrity and their presence and stewardship have made a difference in life. But there comes a time when we must look at the level of accountability and recognize that we are weighed in the balance and found wanting. We did not struggle to win the Voting Rights Act just to change the color of government, but to change the character of government
as well. Therefore, we must see to it that black elected officials are held accountable. We must no longer vote for people just because of the color of the skin, but for the content of their character, and the caliber of their stewardship. We must see to it.
Many black folks are not apathetic, they’re disappointed. There’s a difference in apathy and disillusionment. Apathy implies you don’t give a damn. Disillusionment implies that you did once but don’t now. And how come? It is not simply that black elected officials have not been able to deliver to the extent that we hoped. That couldn’t happen. Our expectations were too high and our minority status too low to deliver at the level of expectation. But they could have addressed the futility and the hopelessness, and perhaps could have delivered more if we were convinced that even though they weren’t able to deliver, that they tried their hearts out, worked their butts off, and could not be bought. Could not compromise on certain principles. We have not seen enough of that courageous, bold kind of stewardship.
Black elected officials must be helped to understand that they are products of movement. And they must reflect the spirit of movement in their stewardship. We don’t need black politicians who are just like white politicians. They must move at a different level of activism and sacrifice.
At our SCLC convention, we voted to work with other groups to establish an national panel to talk about black voting strength. We must also talk about accountability. We must have a network of principles of accountability.
We must find ways to strengthen the coalition of conscience. We have to help white folks. It’s our responsibility. We are the only ones who can help the white folks. Let me tell you what I mean.
That O.J. thing, wasn’t it interesting? It pained me for white people to think that black folks didn’t feel sorrow and pain about the death of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. I just hate that anybody would think that. Good God, as much as we’ve suffered from violence. We can weep with the families. It’s as crazy as folks talking about black folks’ being soft on crime. How in the hell are we going to be soft on crime? We are the chief victims of crime. And to say that black folks won’t vote to convict black criminals is a lie.
In Georgia, SCLC fought the two-strikes-and-you’re-out legislation. Our Governor–three-strikes-and-you’re-out wasn’t enough for him. We recognize what it was, we knew what the net result would be. You know who is going to be out–or rather who’s going to be in. You know who. But, we fought it. But do you know that black folks overwhelmingly supported it. Because they’re fed up with crime. This was an opportunity to say so.
So black folks cheered the O.J. verdict but it had nothing to do with O.J. You don’t understand black folk, white folk. Most black folks I know don’t think his name is Orenthal, they think it’s Oreo. But this was an opportunity to say look-a-yonder, for once the system that has corrupted and corroded and destroyed and devastated us down through history, white folks get a chance to see what it looks like.
But black folks understand white folks. Wouldn’t none of us be here except that our ancestors understood that survival was at stake. White folks don’t understand us because too few of them will take the time to hear our cry, feel our pain, share our anguish, understand the disillusionment. We have to change that in a coalition of conscience. We have to say, “Let us renew the struggle.” No privileged group in history ever willingly relinquished its place of privilege. It has to be wrested from them.
Not voting is too expensive. Look what it cost us. Newt, Dole, student aid decimated, health care eliminated, Medicaid inundated, job programs mutilated, voting rights assassinated, untruth exacerbated, the elderly aggravated, and ethical and moral productivity constipated. It cost us, cost us not to vote. So we must now gear up for a new movement. A new movement that joins the community of faith and the coalition of conscience.
Justice ain’t gonna happen through osmosis. Justice ain’t gonna roll down by capillary action. Somebody must raise the level of consciousness, walk the walk and talk the talk, pay the price and make the sacrifice. We are committed in the context of non-violence through the political and economic resources we have. We must get back in motion with the fire in our belly.
The Rev. Joseph Lowery is the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. His remarks are edited from a speech on October 28, 1995, to a voting rights conference in New Orleans organized by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the Southern Regional Council.