This month we are commemorating the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The recent Public Broadcasting System American Experience Program “Freedom Summer” vividly conveyed how the residents of Mississippi, supported by a group of about 700 college students from around the country, challenged the state’s segregationist structure.
The television images and testimonies of those who lived the struggle clearly records how the forces of ugliness, brutality, courage, bravery, sacrifice, and nobleness played out in the messiness and complexity of the democratic process during the summer of 1964. Inspired by democratic idealism and values and the desire for dignity and freedom, the African American leaders of the movement prevailed and civil rights progress became a reality.
But progress was not achieved without great sacrifice. Many of those threatened by the possibility of blacks gaining greater voting rights used their economic power to punish the advocates for change by denying them jobs and worse. Three young men, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were brutally murdered. The anguish and grief of their colleagues was palpable. But rather than being discouraged, the activists faced fear head on with rededication and resolve.
In the midst of that summer Congress passed and President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Now, fifty years later, the significance of that achievement is clear. In August of 1965 the Voting Rights Act abolished the much abused literacy test and placed voting processes in seven Southern states under federal supervision. Fewer than 10 percent of African Americans in Mississippi were registered to vote prior to the Voting Rights Act. One year later more than 60 percent were on the rolls.
“Freedom Summer” concluded with a note that today Mississippi has more African American officials than any other state in the country. In the recent Republican open primary runoff Chris McDaniel lost to the incumbent Thad Cochran in part because Cochran appealed to black Democrats. As I write McDaniel has refused to concede.
The struggle continues unevenly. Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and LBJ biographer Robert Caro recently expressed his dismay because “parts of this country are trying to go back to what things were like before the Voting Rights Act.”
Last year the Supreme Court struck down Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act in the Shelby County v. Holder decision. But the American Civil Liberties Union (www.aclu.org/voting-rights) is legally challenging state efforts to limit voters’ rights. It is active in the courts and on the legislative front.
Ironically the party of Abraham Lincoln is at the forefront of efforts to make voting more difficult and restrictive in over a dozen states. Voter suppression is often the goal of voter ID laws, early voting limitations, same day registration denial and other tactics.
These efforts, in the absence of evidence of voter fraud, are striking at the very heart of our democracy and are antithetical to the democratic values of our nation.