voting rights

50 Years After Voting Rights Act, Black Churches Fighting Voting Restrictions

Adelle M. Banks / RNS

The Rev. James C. Perkins. Photo via Adelle M. Banks / RNS

Fifty years after the signing of the Voting Rights Act, the president of the Progressive National Baptist Convention said black churches will be redoubling efforts to maintain access to the ballot box.

The act, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson 50 years ago Aug. 6, was a crowning achievement of the civil rights movement. But in 2013 the Supreme Court invalidated key provisions, and many states, nearly all of them under Republican control, passed new voting restrictions that critics say target minority voters.

The Voting Rights Act’s Jubilee: A Necessary Interruption

Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II., at the mass meeting in Winston-Salem. Photo by Phil Fonville.

NC NAACP vs. McCrory is a necessary interruption to the institutionalized racism that is killing black and brown people. For all the talk around “black lives matter,” Rev. Barber warns, we are in danger of only affirming that black death matters if we accept that the martyrs of Charleston deserve nothing more than the removal of a Confederate flag from their state house. Yes, the flags should come down. But if they go away while the unjust laws remain, then it may be even harder for us to see that the root of injustice is in an imbalance of power.

And the fundamental power of citizenship in this country is still the franchise.

The Unfinished Business of Selma

Terry W Ryder / Shutterstock.com

Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., site of Bloody Sunday. Terry W Ryder / Shutterstock.com

The journey to end systems of injustice begins with a single step. This theme resonates throughout the recently released film Selma, which recounts the events leading up to the famous Selma-to-Montgomery march. Led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., this march catalyzed the full enfranchisement of people of color through the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The Voting Rights Act is considered to be one of the most successful achievements of the civil rights movement. But 50 years later, the residue of Jim Crow laws that banned people of color from voting lingers today in a new, subtle form: disenfranchisement laws for people with felony convictions.

Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, examines how these laws strip minority communities of their voice in the public sphere because of the disproportionately high percentage of racial minorities “swept into” America’s mass incarceration system.

The Faces of a Movement

Selma, reviewed by Gareth Higgins in "Moved, or Moved to Act?" (Sojourners, March 2015), follows the events leading up to the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery. Higgins explains that the marchers in Selma are historically and missionally related to the marchers of today: "We are beginning to understand that we need to look back in order to look forward honestly." Let's look back at 16 of the civil rights leaders featured in Selma who were instrumental to the ongoing movement for racial equality. Click on the links to read more about these heroes who stood alongside Martin Luther King Jr., but are less well-known.


Keith Stanfield as Jimmie Lee Jackson

  

Jimmie Lee Jackson was a young civil rights activist who was fatally shot by a police officer
while protesting 
(unarmed) for voting rights.

Oprah Winfrey as Annie Lee Cooper

  

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I Need Feminism Because ...

Human rights, woman shape. Image courtesy Bombaert Patrick/shutterstock.com

Human rights, woman shape. Image courtesy Bombaert Patrick/shutterstock.com

In a perfect world, women can choose to be whomever they want. But there is not yet a country on earth in which that is actually true. That is why we need feminism.

That there’s disagreement over how we talk about women’s empowerment in the U.S. isn’t surprising — feminism is a collection of unique people with unique visions of a good life, trying to figure out how to preserve past and present good, correct past and present wrongs, and forge a new way ahead together.

But it is tragically, perennially clear why speaking up against male-controlled narratives in church or school or novels or movies or business or government, against generations of excused behavior for men and oppression for women, against ongoing systemic injustice is still so crucially necessary.

From reading what these “anti-modern-feminists” have written, I don’t believe any of them would take umbrage with that. It’s a pity, then, they are rejecting the term feminism — their challenges would be great additions to the dialogue. More education and conversation about what feminism is, and how we do it, and where it can go, is clearly needed. Without it, I’m not at all sure how much farther forward we’ll be able to go.

 

The Most Controversial Sentence I Ever Wrote

'12 Years a Slave' still, Fox Searchlight

'12 Years a Slave' still, Fox Searchlight

The most controversial sentence I ever wrote, considering the response to it, was not about abortion, marriage equality, the wars in Vietnam or Iraq, elections, or anything to do with national or church politics. It was a statement about the founding of the United States of America. Here’s the sentence:

"The United States of America was established as a white society, founded upon the near genocide of another race and then the enslavement of yet another."

The comments were overwhelming, with many calling the statement outrageous and some calling it courageous. But it was neither. The sentence was simply a historical statement of the facts. It was the first sentence of a Sojourners magazine cover article, published 26 years ago titled “America’s Original Sin: The Legacy of White Racism.”

An extraordinary new film called 12 Years a Slave has just come out, and Sojourners hosted the premiere for the faith community on Oct. 9 in Washington, D.C. Rev. Otis Moss III was on the panel afterward that reflected on the film. Dr. Moss is not only a dynamic pastor and preacher in Chicago, but he is also a teacher of cinematography who put this compelling story about Solomon Northup — a freeman from New York, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery — into the historical context of all the American films ever done on slavery. 12 Years is the most accurate and best produced drama of slavery ever done, says Moss.

In her New York Times review, “ The Blood and Tears, Not the Magnolias,” Manohla Dargis says, 12 Years a Slave “isn’t the first movie about slavery in the United States — but it may be the one that finally makes it impossible for American cinema to continue to sell the ugly lies it’s been hawking for more than a century.” Instead of the Hollywood portrayal of beautiful plantations, benevolent masters, and simple happy slaves, it shows the utterly brutal violence of a systematic attempt to dehumanize an entire race of people — for economic greed. It reveals how morally outrageous the slave system was, and it is very hard to watch.

Is 'the Dream' Under Attack?

 Danny E Hooks / Shutterstock.com

Martin Luther King, Jr., quote at the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala. Danny E Hooks / Shutterstock.com

I was born in 1969 and thus am in the first generation of African-Americans to grow up with laws and policies that say to the rest of America that I am equal. I saw housing opportunities open up for me as my parents “broke the block” and became the first African-Americans to move onto an all-white block in the East Mt. Airy section of Philadelphia in 1970. I saw educational opportunities open up such that I was able to attend a nearly all-white private, college-prep high school in the suburbs. This was the fruit of the Civil Rights movement in my life growing up in the 1970s and 80s.

Soon hundreds of thousands will gather on the National Mall to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King gave his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. That speech lived on for me in classrooms and in speech competitions and was etched on my heart so that I would carry that dream into the future.

The recent decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court to gut the enforcement section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the decision of the jury in the George Zimmerman trial have left me wondering about the dream, worried that it is under attack and worries that professed Christians are among those helping lead those attacks. 

Moving Backward on Racial Progress

Equality symbol tag cloud,  life_in_a_pixel / Shutterstock.com

Equality symbol tag cloud, life_in_a_pixel / Shutterstock.com

Adaptation is how a bitter and broken South survived its own worst instincts after the war. Progressive pockets emerged in college towns and later in large cities. Hungry for Northern business, the region became less racially polarized. In time, a black man could become mayor of Atlanta and another could become the Episcopal bishop of North Carolina.

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream of 50 years ago came to seem possible. Distant, yet possible.

But now the dream has receded. The fact of a black president seems to have reopened a pulsing vein of racism. Operating under cover of fiscal austerity, vengeful state politicians are gutting decades of programs that helped the South move forward by helping blacks and Latinos to have a chance.

No more affirmative action, they say; no more dark-skinned citizens flocking to voting stations; no more voting districts shaped by fairness; no more protections from ground-level aggression against people of color.

Once again, as happened in the 19th century, impoverished whites who should be lining up to resist predatory behavior by the moneyed class are being turned against their own best interests by race politics.

On Scripture: Fighting for Freedom

Statue of Liberty, Katharina M / Shutterstock.com

Statue of Liberty, Katharina M / Shutterstock.com

“If you love somebody, set them free. Free. Free. Set them free.” Of all the songs to come to mind during this Independence Day weekend, this one rings in my head. Sting, the artist, did not have America’s freedom celebration in mind when he coined these words. Honestly, the song has little to do with patriotism; it is more of a ballad of love lost and letting go. Nonetheless I dare to invoke it, as the words resonate with the spirit of autonomy that is so pervasive on July 4. “Set them free. Free. Free. Set them free.”

Each year at this time, our country focuses on liberty, the red-white-and-blue, and “My Country Tis of Thee.” I am grateful to live in the U.S. and the freedom this affords. Yet, what about persons who are not so independent — the unemployed who rely on federal subsidies, children whose schools are closing due to no fault of their own, and yes, the millions of Americans in the prison system? Although the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 reversed the disparity between crack and cocaine convictions implemented by the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, the prison rate remains exorbitant. More than 2.2 million are still behind bars. The Texas execution rate is at 500 and counting. Forty-eight percent of persons in federal prisons were convicted of drug offenses, according to The Sentencing Project. A reversal in policy three years ago has not flipped today’s prison numbers. So many are not free.

Equal Justice Under the Law

Sign outside the Supreme Court, photo by Victoria Pickering / Flickr.com

Sign outside the Supreme Court, photo by Victoria Pickering / Flickr.com

The words above the Supreme Court read, “Equal Justice Under the Law.” This week, two Supreme Court outcomes dramatically affected the reality of those words.

On Tuesday, in a 5-4 decision, a key component of the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965 was struck down, jeopardizing equal justice under the law especially for black, Hispanic, and low-income people whose voting rights have historically been assaulted and have continued to be suppressed as recently as the 2012 election. In fact, Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act — which required parts of the country that have been especially egregious in racially motivated voter suppression to get federal approval of any changes in their voting laws — was specifically used in the 2012 election to prevent new voter suppression. That provision has now been struck down, and efforts to increase barriers to voting are already underway in several states, especially in the South, that would suppress the future votes of Americans of color, especially those with lower incomes.

Equal justice under the law lost on Tuesday, June 25. The Supreme Court’s decision was morally shameful. ... 

Contrast Tuesday’s decision with the final ones we saw handed down this week. ... I, along with a growing number of people in the faith community, believe that equal protection under the law is essential for our gay and lesbian friends and family members. While some Christians are conflicted about the theological issues involved, or even are unable to support homosexuality on a religious basis, they also don’t want churches to be the ones standing in the way of civil rights. 

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