The Struggle to Secure Black Suffrage (#2)

By: Erin Aley

USA. Alabama. Selma. 1965. Led by Martin Luther King Jr., a group of civil rights demonstrators march from Selma to Montgomery to fight for black suffrage.

In order to start my second blog I began my search in the place that most modern people go when they want to know something: Google. So, of course, I googled the phrase “African American cultural artifacts” and browsed the images that came up. Most of them, did not register with me, I wanted something that stood out to me, something powerful and had a message that could be applicable today just as it was then. I know that is a lot to ask for from a simple search on google with such feeble search parameters as I used. However, amongst all the detritus and miscellany I found a gem. What began with one compelling photo, of two young men against the backdrop of the American flag, lead to a slew of different photos featuring the two men. Although the men in the photo remain unnamed I wanted to do them justice by describing the struggles they endured in order to gain equality and the right to vote without fear of violence.

The snapshot was taken by photographer Bruce Davidson in 1965 in Selma, Alabama. Bruce Davidson has been a member of the Magnum Photos agency since 1958 and much of his work is notable because many of the communities he photographed were often hostile to outsiders. He took over 140 photos between 1961 and 1965, documenting the lives of African Americans and their allies during this contentious time period. In his photography book Time of Change: Civil Rights Photographs 1961-1965, Davidson displays all aspects of African American lives, from a tender moment between a mother and her baby in a Harlem tenement, to a press conference with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis after he was between by the KKK, to a man being surrounded by a redneck mob at the Mississippi Freedom March. The photo I choose does not picture a famous Civil Rights activist or movement leader, but it does show something just as important: the contributions of everyday people whom without change could not have been made (“Bruce Davidson”).

During the Civil Rights Era many African Americans banded together to fight against racial segregation. Racial segregation took on two forms in the United states: de jure segregation, which was more prevalent in the south, and de facto segregation, which occurred more often in the north. De jure segregation is the separation of races in all aspects of life which is protected by the laws of the area. De facto segregation is a less intense, but just as harmful form of racial discrimination, which occurs as “a matter of fact” and does not have laws protecting it. Many different political and civil rights groups formed as a response to the injustices they faced because of racial segregation and white violence, and although they all had different views and backgrounds they worked together towards the same goal: freedom and equality in all aspects of life. Groups like the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) took an approach of color-blindness and worked within the system to allow black people full integration into society without destroying the systems already in place. However, groups such as SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and the Black Nationalists felt the NAACP and others were too passive in their actions and focused more on integration as a means to achieving freedom and not the end. Malcolm X is a notable member of the Black Nationalists, whose urgency and demand for money to stay in the hands of black people in their communities gained him support amongst many groups. SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), founded by Martin Luther King Jr., amongst others, and CORE (Conference of Racial Equality) balanced the radical leftist and conservative right-wing and used protests as a method to “achieve full citizenship rights, equality, and integration into all aspects of American life” (Pittman).Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the SCLC led the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, which focused on the registry of black voters (Pittman).

The photo was taken of protesters marching from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama who were being lead by Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders of the SCLC. On March 7, 1965 600 people began the march in an attempt to end discrimination in voter registration and voting. Once the marchers made it to the Edmund Pettus Bridge both state and local authority attacked them with billy clubs and teargas, making them turn around and return to Selma. Two days later, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led a symbolic march from Selma to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which once they reached it, turned back at the police barricades. At this march James Reebs, a Unitarian Universalist minister, was attacked by a group of white men and later died of his injuries. Between the 9th of March and the 20th, the federal government worked against the local and state governments in Alabama in order to insure black citizens their rights to voting and protecting them from white violence. on the 17th, Federal District Court Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr. ruled in favor of the marchers and their right to petition the government in a large group. The next day Governor Wallace denies the decision made by Johnson stating that the state of Alabama does not have the capacity to keep the march secure and formally requests the assistance of the federal government. President Lyndon B. Johnson makes an executive order to give federal funding to the Alabama National Guard so that the march maybe properly secured. Finally, on the 21st 3,200 people began the march from Selma to Montgomery walking a dozen miles a day and camping at night on the sides of the road, all under the protection of the federal troops. When the marchers reached Alabama’s state capital four days later, their numbers had risen to over 25,000. The events that occurred in Selma had a very significant impact on safeguarding black voting rights in the U.S., and on August 6 , 1965, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (CNN Library).

In the photo of the two young men, the aspect I found most captivating was the gentleman who has ‘vote’ painted on his face. As Malcolm X said, the way for black people to achieve peaceful integration and fully gain equality would be through the ballot. It was either vote for people who would make a difference or pick up their weapons and turn towards the bullet (Malcolm X). However, it was not as simple as it sounds, as voting was systematically made to exclude black people through a number of different methods. The right for men to vote, no matter their racial makeup, was protected in the 15th Amendment which was codified in 1870, yet nearly a hundred years later black men and women were still fighting. One of the main way in which black people were kept from voting was through the use of poll taxes which were often too expensive for many low-income black people to pay. In 1962, Congress enacted the 24th Amendment which made it illegal for poll taxes to be charged at federal elections. Another major way that black citizens were disenfranchised during the voting process was through the use of literacy tests. Poll taxes were purposefully racists, denying a larger percentage of the black population the ability than the white population. Often white people who were illiterate were not even tested, and black people who made minor mistakes were ineligible to vote. Fear of violence was a factor which greatly impacted the number of black people that were willing to vote. Although the Enforcement Act of 1870 prohibited the intimidation or harm of another person who was attempting to practice their civil rights, violence and threats were one of the most prevalent tactics used to disenfranchise black voters (“Techniques of Direct Disenfranchisement, 1880-1965.”). One of the most comprehensive responses to the discrimination in voting was the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which allowed the federal government to replace racist Southern registrars, as well as ending poll taxes and suspending literacy tests. The changes that were being made in the nation’s government can be seen very clearly in the landslide win of President Johnson over his conservative opponent Barry Goldwater (Santoro).

Although the methods are no longer the same, black people, as well as other minorities, are still being kept from voting at the same rates that white people vote. The mass incarceration of people of color has a major impact of the population of black people that are able to vote. One in three black men and one in eightteen black women will arrested with their lifetime. Twelve states still have some form of ban or restriction on felons voting, and because of the overwhelming large population of black people in prison, the number of black votes is significantly different (“Racial Disparity”).  So although poll taxes and being beaten up for voting does not happen with any great frequency, black people’s ability to vote is still being limited due to racism that is deeply entrenched in our police and our government.



Works Cited

“Bruce Davidson.” Magnum Photos Photographer Profile. Magnum Photos, 2014. Web. 10 Dec. 2015.

Davidson, Bruce. NYC13049. 1965. USA. Alabama. Selma. 1965., Selma. Magnum Photos Photographer Profile. Web. 10 Dec. 2015.

Davidson, Bruce. NYC22944. 1965. USA. Alabama. Selma. 1965., Selma. Magnum Photos Photographer Profile. Web. 10 Dec. 2015.

Davidson, Bruce. PAR167579. 1965. USA. Alabama. Selma. 1965., Selma. Magnum Photos Photographer Profile. Web. 10 Dec. 2015.

“1965 Selma to Montgomery March Fast Facts.” CNN. CNN Library, 2 Mar. 2015. Web. 10 Dec. 2015.

Pittman, LaShawnDa. “The Second Reconstruction Part.” November 23, 2015. Prezi presentation.

“Racial Disparity.” The Sentencing Project News. The Sentencing Project News, n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2015.

Santoro, W. A. “The Civil Rights Movement and the Right to Vote: Black Protest, Segregationist Violence and the Audience.” Social Forces 86.4 (2008): 1391-414. Project MUSE [Johns Hopkins UP]. Web. 10 Dec. 2015.

“Techniques of Direct Disenfranchisement, 1880-1965.” Techniques of Direct Disenfranchisement, 1880-1965. University of Michigan, n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2015.

X, Malcolm. “The Ballot or the Bullet.” Cleveland, Ohio. 3 Apr. 1964. Social Justices Speeches. Web. 11 Dec. 2015.

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