Forty-six years ago, civil rights activists in Selma, Alabama began what they hoped would be a 50-mile march to the state capital of Montgomery to demand their voting rights. But instead of battling blisters and tired feet after a long day of marching, many of the several hundred marchers found themselves bashed, battered, and bruised thanks to blows from clubs wielded by local and state police.
These brave souls put their bodies on the line for the right to vote, and their sacrifice was remembered yesterday as "Bloody Sunday." Partly due to their sacrifice in Selma and the commitment of local people throughout the South sacrificing day in and day out, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law later that year.
Amazingly, in 2011, the basic right to vote and have your vote counted is still not guaranteed in Cincinnati, Ohio. Last November, in a cost-cutting maneuver by the Hamilton County Board of Elections, polling precincts were combined into one location in a few African American communities. When people came in to vote on election day, some went to the wrong table, not knowing their precise precinct due to the change in location. Poll workers are supposed to help guide people to the correct precinct, but in several hundred cases, they mistakenly had voters fill out provisional ballots at the wrong precinct.
This situation would have drawn little attention if a race for a local juvenile judge case had not ended up so very close. After the first count, the white male candidate was leading the African American female candidate by less than thirty votes. Then they discovered all these ballots cast at the wrong precinct due to poll worker error.
The case is now in the court system, and recently a three-member group from the U.S. Court of Appeals told the county to count the votes. But did they? No! Now, believe it or not, the Hamilton County Board of Elections is spending taxpayer dollars to appeal the decision to the entire U.S. District Court of Appeals to try to disfranchise voters who, through poll-worker error, cast ballots in the right building but at the wrong table. And the county is prepared to take this all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to try to keep these provisional ballots from being counted.
And of course the overwhelming majority of those whose votes are being cast aside are African Americans. John Lewis and the hundreds of others who bled 46 years ago suffered to guarantee the right to vote for every citizen. But the battle is not over. The threats to our rights as voters are still under assault. We in Cincinnati, Ohio remember the sacrifices of those who bled on the Edmund Pettus Bridge 46 years ago as we labor on to make sure that every vote counts in Hamilton County in 2011.
Troy Jackson is senior pastor of University Christian Church in Cincinnati, a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, and earned his PhD in United States history from the University of Kentucky. He is author of Becoming King: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Making of a National Leader (Civil Rights and the Struggle for Black Equality in the Twentieth Century) and a participant in Sojourners' Windchangers grassroots organizing project in Ohio.