The movie “Selma” brings back bittersweet memories of my experiences in Selma, Alabama, the year after the protests that triggered passage of the Voting Rights Act. Sadly, the movie served as a reminder that the battle at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 continues today in North Carolina and in other states that have voter ID laws.
I spent the summer of 1966 in Selma as a reporter with the Southern Courier, a weekly newspaper established in 1965 to cover the civil rights movement in Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia. That summer, I met some of the bravest Americans I have known, people who deserve as much acclaim for courage as the Minutemen who fought at Concord and Lexington, only these heroes chose nonviolent action as their weapon.
The first people I met in Selma were Lonzy West, his wife, Alice, and their 11 children. The Wests were among the foot soldiers of the civil rights movement. Lonzy and family members endured arrests, beatings, tear gassings and economic sanctions to fight for the right to vote.
Lonzy West made his living as a house painter, working mostly for whites in Selma. The day West tried to register to vote, his work in the white community ended. He and his family spent several years living on a pittance because the white community wanted to punish him – and hundreds of others – for the audacity of trying to register to vote.
The Wests lived in public housing, the GWC Homes, next to Brown Chapel AME Church, epicenter of the protests. After work, I would visit the Wests for dinner and hang out with the family.
Many nights we stayed up late, Lonzy working himself into tears talking about his sense of failure for not being able to support his family. He knew that if he renounced his quest to vote, the white community would embrace him as the prodigal son, put him back to work and end his family’s economic miseries. But to Lonzy and Alice, the right to vote was more important than economic necessities.
They also knew firsthand that those fighting for the right to vote faced the possibility of death. They frequently allowed civil rights workers to stay with them in their home. One such guest was a theology student, Jonathan Daniels, who in August 1965 was shot dead in midday outside the Lowndes County courthouse.
I am a white Southerner who grew up in Baton Rouge and Pineville, Louisiana, and Atlanta. Nothing prepared me for the level of evil I witnessed in Alabama, all in the name of protecting segregation of the races and denying African-Americans the right to vote.
One evening I ran an errand for the Wests, with two of the West kids sitting next to me in the front seat. I was stopped by a Selma policeman. He told me politely that I shouldn’t drive around with black people, that there were people who would shoot me for that.
As a journalist, I didn’t face the dangers endured by civil rights workers, although journalists were clearly not welcome. In August, my photographer and I covered a night-time protest march in Tuscaloosa. As usual, we were the only media there. A police officer told us twice to leave. We stayed. Next we knew, we were on the way to jail. We were photographed, finger-printed, interrogated, not allowed a phone call, locked up overnight and then released in the morning. The police told our editor we were jailed for being “dangerous and suspicious.”
The Voting Rights Act and President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty have made a difference in Selma. Thanks to the War on Poverty, Alice West was able to get a job managing a day care program. The family moved out of the projects. She is now retired and owns a home in a mixed-race, middle-income neighborhood. All the kids have attained success in their fields. One son has served on the Selma School Board, another on the town council. One daughter, Rachel, has co-authored a book on her experience in that era, “Selma, Lord, Selma.”
Two years ago, I visited one son who was running for town council. I walked with him door-to-door to get out the vote. Alabama’s Republican legislature had recently implemented voter ID laws similar to those in North Carolina. We worked two precincts contacting households that had voted in the past. In each precinct, we found three or four persons out of about 50 contacted who said they could not vote because they didn’t have the ID needed. They had voted before, but their right to vote had been stripped from them.
With 2,726 voting precincts in North Carolina, the loss of three or four votes per precinct can make the difference between winning and losing in a close election.
Voter ID laws are a barrier to voting for those on the margins of society – people who never had enough money to own a car or open a bank account and so don’t have driver’s licenses or ID cards; who don’t have a birth certificate, never had a need for one, don’t know how to get one and, if they did, wouldn’t have the money to buy one. Many of these people are African-Americans.
Draw your own conclusion whether voter ID laws are racist. But voter ID laws clearly take away a right gained only at the cost of the suffering and death of Americans.
The tactics to keep people from voting have changed in 50 years, but the effect is the same. That’s why a new generation of Americans must continue the battle started at the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Wayne Hurder, a retired state employee, lives in Raleigh.