Activists: Voting Rights Act still important

Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 6, 2005

The Selma Times-Journal

Forty years ago yesterday, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The law changed America irrevocably, forcing poll workers all across the nation to allow black men and women to vote, guaranteeing an inalienable right.

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This year, on the anniversary, civil rights activists and organizations all across the country will stage events honoring the signing.

While one of the biggest celebrations will occur in Atlanta, it can’t be forgotten that protests on Bloody Sunday, the first attempt to march from Selma to Montgomery, directly led to the passage of the bill.

Many Selma residents were involved in the fight for voting rights, either as leaders of protests or members of student groups.

All of them were effected and remember the event in many different ways.

Some, like Ruth Elaine Brown Anthony, has bittersweet memories of finding out the bill had been signed.

Others, like the Rev. F.D. Reese, felt a great sense of accomplishment.

Some, like Police Chief Jimmy Martin, said he didn’t know how big the Voting Rights Act was when it passed.

For many, the fight for voting rights isn’t over. Next year marks the end of certain provisions in the act designed to help enforce the act.

One provision requires nine states, including Alabama, to get federal approval of any changes in voting rules.

Another requires election officials to provide voting material in the native language of immigrant voters who don’t speak English

A major part of the celebration in Atlanta and others is helping ensure those provisions won’t expire, by lobbying Congress to make them a permanent part of the law.

Several Selma residents shared their viewpoints on the passage of the act,

what it meant at the time and what it has meant to them over the years.

Pauline Anderson

Pauline Anderson is the wife of former Tabernacle Baptist Church pastor and Voting Rights activist L.L. Anderson. A street in Selma has been named after L.L. Anderson.

Anderson said she does not remember much about the day President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law, but recalled the first time she was able to register to vote.

Anderson said she stayed in the background during the Voting Rights Movement.

Etta Perkins

Etta Perkins, mother of Mayor James Perkins Jr. and a former nurse who worked at the Good Samaritan Hospital during the Voting Rights Movement.

As the mother of Selma’s first black mayor, Etta Perkins is an example of a local resident whose family has directly benefited from the signing of the Voting Rights Act.

Perkins said she was involved in a letter writing campaign to doctors to complain about segregated services and worked with Marie Foster in registering people to vote.

Perkins said she was happy to stay out of the limelight and watch her son reap the benefits from the Act.

Jannie Venter

Jannie Venter, who is in her first term on the Selma City Council.

Selma City Councilwoman Jannie Venter said she was 24-years-old when &8220;Bloody Sunday&8221; took place on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

At a recent worship service at Brown AME Chapel commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, Venter vividly recalled how a police horse ran up to her house at the height of the incident.

Rev. F.D. Reese

The Rev. F.D. Reese, pastor of the city’s Ebenezer Baptist Church. It was this veteran civil rights leader who initially invited Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to come to Selma to lead the voting rights demonstrations of 1965. When the act was signed, Reese was unable to attend the ceremony because he was teaching class that day.

Reese said that when the bill was signed, it seemed like much of the work done by protestors and activists was worthwhile.

After the signing, Reese said he didn’t have time to celebrate much, because of his duties as a teacher.

Still, during those meetings, Reese said the topic wasn’t far from their minds.

As a teacher, Reese said he could not think of a better lesson on citizenship that the fight for voting rights and the eventual passage of the Voting Rights Act.

Ultimately, Reese said, he felt thankful for the opportunity to be involved in the struggle.

Selma Police Chief Jimmy Martin

Chief Jimmy Martin was in Junior High School when the signing occurred. He didn’t participate in the movement, but he said the signing was the talk of the town when it occurred.

He said that not all of the talk was entirely positive.

At the time, however, Martin said he had no idea of the scope of the Act.

As far as the segregation common to the time, Martin said his parents protected them from it as much as possible.

As a public servant who’s career may have been vastly different without the passage of the Act, Martin said he was thankful and proud of the sacrifices made by the workers – both black and white – at the time.

Ruth Elaine Brown Anthony

Ruth Anthony was a member of the Selma Student movement, before and after the Act was sign. She was in the 11th grade when it passed. Now she works at Alagasco and is a member of the Alabama State Democratic Executive Committee.

Anthony said the passage of the act was a relief, but a little cynicism remained.

For her, the signing of the law wasn’t the biggest memory.

Even so, the struggle for voting rights wasn’t all joy for Anthony.

Even today, especially with the possibility that certain provisions in the act will expire, it bothers her.