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Column: 50 years later, remembering a key civil rights moment

On Aug. 6, 1965, photo, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in a ceremony in the President's Room near the Senate Chambers on Capitol Hill in Washington.
On Aug. 6, 1965, photo, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in a ceremony in the President's Room near the Senate Chambers on Capitol Hill in Washington. AP

On Aug. 6, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law measures that after 95 years added enforcement teeth to the 15th Amendment to the Constitution that granted black men the right to vote.

The 50th anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act has largely been lost in the hoopla commemorating the Civil War sesquicentennial.

But it is uppermost in the mind of U.S. Rep. John Lewis. Four months before the signing, the world had seen the then-young civil rights leader at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., with blood flowing down his face from a fractured skull. The savage beating by Alabama state troopers of Lewis and others marching for the right to vote had been the catalyst that finally got the law passed.

On the day of the signing, Johnson invited Lewis to the White House, Lewis said in a telephone conversation earlier this week. The group included Lewis, leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee that had been founded in Raleigh in 1960, and James Farmer, the leader of the Congress of Racial Equality.

Johnson, Lewis said, met with them in a room off the Oval Office. He told them that he intended to sign the Voting Rights Act in a few minutes. Then, Lewis said, the president gave them marching orders: “‘I want you to go back down South and register those people to vote.’”

Afterward, he said, Johnson would give him one of the pens he used to sign the law.

Lewis, 75, who has represented Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District since 1987, said his commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the law will include working to make sure the nation stays true to the Voting Rights Act’s purpose of expanding the franchise. He has concerns about North Carolina, where the legislature overhauled election laws in 2013, including requiring voter identification, cutting the number of early voting days and eliminating same-day registration and straight-ticket voting.

Opponents who say some provisions will especially hurt black and Latino voters are challenging them as unconstitutional in a federal trial now underway in Winston-Salem.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling “gutted the Voting Rights Act,” Lewis said. The ruling invalidated part of the act, freeing nine states, mostly in the South, to change election laws without advance federal approval. The court, Lewis said, “put a dagger in the heart of the Voting Rights Act, giving states like North Carolina and Texas a way to go back and make it harder for people to vote.”

“Voting is so important,” Lewis said. “The right to have some say, some control over your life. It controls everything we do in a democracy from birth to death.”

One hundred years before the Voting Rights Act, the end of the Civil War brought short-lived benefits to Southern blacks. Slavery would soon be replaced for many by the bondage of sharecropping and other forms of forced labor, often under the auspices of the legal system.

The federal government soon abandoned the South and black political participation was snuffed out with violence and intimidation. The racetocracy, based on white supremacy, would reign for decades, often with atrocities worthy of ISIS. Any black people who challenged the social and political order could have found themselves swinging from a tree, body parts chopped off for souvenirs and the remains burned before throngs of picnickers.

Despite the entire apparatus of the state and all levels of white society arrayed against them, black citizens would fight and die for change. Paramount in those crusades was the battle for the simple right to vote. The long denial of the right of blacks to have a say resonates today in many ways. We see the impact of years of separate and unequal education systems resulting from blacks having no say in the distribution of public resources to which all contributed.

The Voting Rights Act finally brought the United State closer to being the representative democracy it had claimed to be for nearly 200 years. The law had passed 328-74 in the U.S. House and 78-20 in the U.S. Senate. It was, as Lewis noted, a bipartisan vote of Democrats and Republicans. The nay votes were nearly all Democrats representing the once-Confederate states, including North Carolina’s Sam Ervin, who would later be considered a hero of the democracy during the Watergate crisis.

They would be among the last Southern white Democrats of influence. Much of the white South that had turned Democratic for white supremacy, would soon swing back to the Republican Party over disdain for the national Democratic Party’s stance on civil rights.

Still, Lewis said, the Voting Rights Act “liberated the American South and our country.” Without the act, he said, there would have been “no (President) Jimmy Carter, no (President) Bill Clinton, no (President Barack) Obama.”

During the signing ceremony, Lewis said, there “was a joy in the room.” But the emotions of the moment “were almost too much,” he said. The beating in Selma wasn’t Lewis’ first. He was among Freedom Riders traveling south to help with voter registration who were beaten in 1961 at a Greyhound bus station in Rock Hill, S.C. He was assaulted and arrested many times before 1965 and miraculously survived.

At the White House on Aug. 6, 1965, notable were the missing. The people, Lewis said, who “struggled and suffered so much and never lived to see this day.”

Lewis recalls some of the names: Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, murdered in 1964 while working on voter registration in Mississippi; the Rev. James Reeb, beaten to death after the second attempt at the Selma to Montgomery March; Viola Liuzzo, shot to death after the successful march.

“And we can’t forget Jimmie (Lee) Jackson whose death started it all,” Lewis said. The death of Jackson, who was participating in peaceful voting rights protest, at the hands of a state trooper inspired the march that culminated in “Bloody Sunday” at the Pettus Bridge.