Voting Rights Act Challenge: The Fight Continues

By Ruth Hawley-Lowry 2-28-2013
Richard Ellis/Getty Images
President of the South Carolina NAACP speaks at a rally in support of the Voting Rights Act. Richard Ellis/Getty Images

I was on the airplane, looking forward to reading Taylor Branch’s new book, The King Years: Historical Moments in the Civil Rights Movement. As I opened my Kindle, I realized that it offered large excerpts of Branch’s previous works, and was glad that while I have the other books in hard cover, I had these stories in my Kindle. But as I re-read some of the accounts, I realized that my 40-something-old self reacted differently than when I first read some of the accounts when I was 20-something. My younger self yearned to know: How did they organize? How did they deal with differing motives and different movements? And I yearned to believe that I, too, would have sacrificed my being for “The Movement.”

My late 40-something-old self read these words as a mother — as someone who understood the fury of the parents who were scared as their children sacrificed their very lives for justice’s sake:

The smallest questions of logistics — should they ride segregated from Nashville to Birmingham, or should they stick to their principles at the risk of being stopped even before they could begin to take up the Freedom Ride? — opened large questions of philosophy and personal belief, and just when one issue seemed to be settled someone would confess an old doubt or a new fear. Phone calls from . . . sobbing or angry parents who had just seen gruesome news footage of wounded rider Jim Peck disembarking from the plane in New Orleans destabilized the emotions beneath a wobbly consensus. [Branch, Taylor (2013-01-08). The King Years (p. 25). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.]

I pondered on if the eagerness and the passion of my younger years that drove what I thought possible would be sturdy enough for the practicality of my later years. My plane landed and I reached my hotel to attend the Samuel DeWitt Proctor conference (named for the minister and professor who was one of Dr. King’s pastors).

The next morning I was enjoying the Dallas sunshine (10 inches of snow was on my deck back home). As I sipped on my coffee, I smiled as William Lucy and Allan Boesak and other modern-day prophets sat at another table. Perhaps you’ve not heard of these men. Bill Lucy is the person who sought to define the struggle for the sanitation workers in Memphis when the Rev. Dr. King was asked to go to Memphis in April of 1968. Finally, Dr. Lucy summed up the basic message of what so many people failed to understand: “I Am a Man.” Allan Boesak was a powerful force in the anti-Apartheid movement; Archbishop Desmond Tutu calls him “one of our most brilliant voices.”

I looked down at my New York Times to read: “Voting Rights Act is Challenged,” and I felt transported to the 50 years prior that I read about the previous evening. I read about “Jerome Gray, a 74-year-old black man” who lost the privilege to vote because his name was “improperly culled” based on the utility records.

My eyes started to tear and I felt a lump. I didn’t want to read more — of course I knew of voting challenges and redistricting for the 2010 and the 2012 elections. I wept when President Barack Obama pointed to Desiline Victor, the centenarian who waited hours to vote right after calling the names of those who “deserve a vote” regarding gun violence. I weep because I know experientially as a white person who has ministered in a predominately African-American area that gun violence affects African-Americans disproportionately. I’ve known that the voting challenges have been largely targeted toward African-Americans and Hispanic Americans. But I’ve wanted to believe that somehow the voting challenges will work themselves out. I’ve wanted to pretend that the Supreme Court that hosted Thurgood Marshall will, of course, do the right thing. Besides, I’ve got to figure out how to pay my mortgage and send my kids to college. So when I spoke to Dr. Lucy and he spoke to me passionately about how Section 5 is coming to the Supreme Court I comforted myself with the knowledge that someone is doing something about it — while grieving that it is the same folks who fought the same battles 50 years ago.

But one line, in particular, haunted me from the New York Times piece: “Chief Justice Roberts seemed skeptical about the continued need for Section 5. ‘Things have changed in the South,’ he said.”

But I know that not to be true, because I know that racism is steeped in the fabric from which we were collectively hewn and that, indeed, as the Rev. Dr. Gardner Taylor says, “Racism is in the air we breathe and the water that we drink.”

But that night the Rev. Dr. Boesak preached a sermon and asked the congregation a question that we as a nation need to answer. He spoke of a school principal during Apartheid that the white community appreciated. Dr. Boesak preached: “He was one of those ’disciplined’ black people, not one of those ‘emotional black people,’ and he told them to ‘wait patiently on the Lord’ and ‘don’t get riled up’ and ‘don’t alienate the white people’ and he was liked by the whites — the liberal white people.”  Boesak continued:

Then one day this principal was on the streets with the students and he was confronting the police and the next day he was making speeches to the students and telling them it was time to act now. The white folks said, “We understand their impatience but your role has been so important in keeping them calm. What happened?” And the principal said that he realized, “If I die one day the judge of all eternity will ask me: ‘where are my wounds?’ and when I say to God, ‘I have no wounds’ and God will say, ‘Was there nothing to fight for?” 

Boesak challenged the people: “Where are your wounds?” and asked us, “Was there nothing to fight for?” 

So ... the fight continues. With those who lead the way, as they did 50 years ago. With students on the streets in Chicago demanding safe neighborhoods. And with middle-aged mothers who will continue to insist that the fight is not over.

Indeed, as Frederick Douglass wrote, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

The Rev. Ruth Hawley-Lowry has pastored in the NYC, Chicago, and Grand Rapids areas. On the 40th Anniversary of his martyrdom, Naomi Tutu and she organized a gathering with moms from Nashville and professors and pastors from Boston, Baltimore, and D.C. on the steps of Lincoln Memorial to honor the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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