A half-century ago, as a high school student in Madelia, Minn., I did not know a single black person.
Yet I recall with clarity when we learned on Sunday, Sept. 15, 1963, of the Ku Klux Klan-instigated bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, an act that killed four young girls as they prepared to perform with their Sunday-school choir.
Five weeks later, on Nov. 22, 1963, we sat riveted in front of our televisions witnessing the aftermath of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas.
Thirty-four weeks after that tragic day, on Aug. 6, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act that had passed Congress with 80 percent of the Republican votes (and nearly two-thirds of the Democratic ones).
It was mere happenstance this year that my wife, Francelle, and I, along with Allan and Lou Burdick of Minneapolis, undertook a 50th anniversary civil-rights tour in Alabama on the day after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, voiding the legislative formula that determined which jurisdictions must get federal “preclearance” for any changes to their voting laws. The challenge was brought to the nation’s highest court from Shelby County, through which we traveled on our way from Birmingham to Selma.
Most Alabamans — white or black —whom I casually engaged on the court’s decision either had no opinion or were unwilling to share one. One retired white businessman in Selma supported the decision, saying that “absolutely no one here is denied a vote; 90 percent of us get along just fine.” But another white male, in Birmingham, thought there should be “no change in the current law whatsoever.”
Joanne Bland, a founder of the National Voter Rights Museum in Selma, strongly opposed the decision. Bland, who is black and retired from a 20-year military career spent mostly in Germany, has a deep history with civil rights. Arrested at age 8 with her grandmother, who was unsuccessfully seeking to register to vote in 1962, Bland was arrested 12 more times in similar protests before graduating from high school.
Critics of the court’s 5-4 split decision argue that the Voting Rights Act has been arguably the most effective civil-rights tool in American history. Backers of the opinion say the law’s provisions are no longer needed.
The crusade for equal rights for black Americans started at least 150 years ago as the Civil War ended and as the northern- and Republican-dominated Congress passed several civil-rights acts along with the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments. Collectively, these measures were the heart of Reconstruction, which sought to rebuild the South and promote black equality.
For the next 100 years, however, blacks largely lived segregated and vastly unequal lives, not just in the South but in northern cities as well.
The “Alabama Civil Rights Trail” we followed last month was created to tell the story of the movement. Among the noteworthy places we visited:
• The cell, recreated in the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, where Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” that argued that “justice delayed is justice denied.”
• Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, where attack dogs and water hoses under Sheriff Bull Connor repeatedly confronted peaceful protesters in the spring of 1963.
• The Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, where on “Bloody Sunday” in March 1965, Sheriff Jim Clark confronted and turned away some 600 protesters with tear gas and nightsticks. At least a third of the marchers were young black students; another third were sympathetic white Americans.
• The U.S. Hwy. 80 corridor, where for five days voting-rights marchers, led by King, traveled 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery to confront Gov. George Wallace in 1965.
We were impressed with how an expressive Christian faith was a centerpiece of the passive resistance patiently demonstrated by the protesters who, a half-century ago, committed themselves to a bold, new civil-rights course of action.
Things have changed for the better for blacks in Alabama. Still, education levels, jobs and income remain far lower for blacks, with about one in three households living in poverty.
Much accomplished; much more to do.
Chuck Slocum is president of the Williston Group, a Twin Cities management consulting firm.