Honoring the movement

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 2, 2005

MARION (KRT) &045; Before the national movement began to secure voting rights for African-Americans, a quiet registration campaign started in this small Southern town where blacks were more accustomed to kneeling down to pick cotton than standing up for their civil rights.

It was here in the early 1960s that sharecroppers, maids and janitors &045; people who could barely read or write &045; began filing through the back door of the Perry County, Ala., courthouse to register to vote. One by one, they were turned down, victims of a $1.50 poll tax they could not afford and a literacy test that many uneducated whites also would have failed had they been forced to take it.

The activism in Marion helped spark a movement across the South that forced President Lyndon Johnson to ensure the voting rights of all Americans, a move that ultimately changed the country’s political landscape. On Aug. 6, 1965, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law, and for 40 years it has served as a reminder of past discrimination and a protector against disenfranchisement.

As Americans gather next Saturday to commemorate the act’s 40th anniversary, many civil rights leaders have expressed concern that enforcement provisions that expire in 2007 could be placed in jeopardy at a time when they insist minorities are increasingly being disenfranchised.

Though rumors have spread over the Internet that voting rights for minorities will expire in 2007, it is not the case. Voting rights are guaranteed through the 15th Amendment. The Voting Rights Act helped clarify and sustain those rights.

President Bush supports reauthorization and has said he wants to consider improvements to strengthen the act. Some civil rights activists, however, fear that there could be a move under way to make the provisions permanent, which would leave them vulnerable to be struck down by the courts as unconstitutional.

Vowing to ensure that the provisions do not lapse, House Judiciary Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., said at the NAACP convention this month that his committee would soon begin considering a bill to grant the extensions.

One expiring provision requires certain states, most in the South, to obtain preclearance from the Justice Department on procedures or laws involving redistricting, annexation, at-large elections or qualifying candidates as a safeguard against discrimination. Another provision requires that districts with large Native American, Asian-American or Latino populations provide ballots and registration materials in languages other than English and that bilingual clerks or poll workers be on site. Since 1965, the Justice Department has lodged more than 1,000 objections, according to officials, and cases continue to arise.

Last year in Bayou La Batre, Ala., a fishing village where about a third of the 2,700 residents are Asian-American, the Justice Department found that Asian voters had been intimidated during a City Council primary election. Supporters of the white incumbent had challenged ballots questioning the citizenship of Asian voters and accusing them of having felony convictions. The Justice Department intervened and the first Asian-American was elected to the City Council.

And in Georgia, the Justice Department has been asked to examine a new law requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls, a move critics said would target minorities, the poor and the elderly.

Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., said while significant progress has been made since the Voting Rights Act became law, the struggle for equality is not over.

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Meanwhile, activists in Marion continue to honor martyrs who died during the voting rights campaign. Each year, they hold a memorial service for Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 36-year-old Vietnam veteran shot by a state trooper while trying to rescue his mother and 82-year-old grandfather from a police beating during a rally.

The Feb. 18, 1965, shooting and Jackson’s death days later prompted civil rights workers to organize a march from Selma to Montgomery. The Bloody Sunday march, during which participants were attacked by police, brought international attention to the voting rights movement.

Lewis, who was severely beaten on Bloody Sunday, said the 40th anniversary of the signing of the law is a time to recognize those who dedicated their lives to the voting rights movement.

(c) 2005, Chicago Tribune.

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PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): VOTINGRIGHTS