Activists Recall Drive for Voting Rights

At a recent forum in Montgomery, Ala., many civil rights activists of the 1960s remembered the events leading to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, including the bloody march on Selma, Ala.

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jennifer Ludden.

Today is the 40th anniversary of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

(Soundbite from speech)

President LYNDON JOHNSON: Every American citizen must have an equal right to vote.

(Soundbite of applause)

LUDDEN: In March of 1965, President Lyndon Johnson went before Congress demanding legislation to protect black citizens' right to vote.

(Soundbite of applause; speech)

Pres. JOHNSON: There is no reason which can excuse the denial of that right. There is no duty which weighs more heavily on us than the duty we have to ensure that right.

LUDDEN: Five months later, Johnson signed the new law. It outlawed poll taxes, literacy tests and other barriers that had kept blacks from voting. The Voting Rights Act was the culmination of years of struggle by civil rights activists, but the catalyst that led Johnson to so forcefully demand the act's passage was a march from Selma to Montgomery that began on March 7th, 1965. It quickly ended when state troopers attacked. NPR's Margot Adler revisited Montgomery this week and filed this report.

MARGOT ADLER reporting:

As several hundred people gathered in the state Capitol auditorium in Montgomery, Alabama, Dr. Gwen Patton, an activist who organized this event, looked over the crowd. She asked the ministers, the politicians, the judges to stand. She pointed out the student groups and then she welcomed the old-time veteran activists, many in their 70s, 80s and 90s.

Dr. GWEN PATTON (Activist; Event Coordinator): You are the real heroes and sheroes of our movement, and this would not have ever happened if it had not been for you, the foot soldiers, marching in, marching out, day in and day out, to make this a reality. Thank you for coming.

(Soundbite of applause)

ADLER: Many of the people who gathered in the auditorium wanted to tell their stories. Reverend F.D. Reese, the pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, a former voting rights activist and teacher, remembered standing on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma a little over 40 years ago when Sheriff Jim Clark gave the order to move in on the crowd.

Reverend F.D. REESE (Ebenezer Baptist Church): With their billy clubs clutched on both ends and literally went down the line of marchers toppling the marchers over as if you'd topple bowling pins in a bowling alley. They withdrew into their billy clubs and began to beat heads. I saw blood flowing. Yes, I got beaten on the way back across the bridge. Pandemonium broke out in the crowd, a state of disbelief that this kind of violence was happening in these United States of America.

ADLER: Amelia Boynton Robinson, a pioneer in the voting rights movement, is now in her mid-90s. Forty years ago, she was beaten unconscious during the march.

Ms. AMELIA BOYNTON ROBINSON (Voting Rights Activist): They came from the left. They came from the right. They came from in front of us. The first thing I think I fell, but I got up with more determination, and when I looked around, as Reverend Reese said, there was blood. People were running. People were being beaten.

ADLER: After the marchers were turned back, Dr. Martin Luther King put out a national call to come to Selma, and Reverend Reese remembers that that very night a group from New Jersey chartered a plane and a bus and arrived to join the marchers.

Rev. REESE: And said, `We have heard the call of Dr. King, and we have seen on the television screen what happened across that bridge, and we are here to lend our bodies and our citizens to the people of Selma.' That was one of the most exhilarating and inspiring moments of the day, because now you had the feeling there were others who were concerned about your plight in Selma, Alabama.

ADLER: A little over two weeks later, some 25,000 people marched to Montgomery and handed a petition to Alabama Governor George Wallace.

Dr. JOSEPH LOWERY (Co-founder, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee): You see, the denial of the right to vote was not just a political tactic. It was a part of the dehumanization process of black people.

ADLER: Dr. Joseph Lowery, one of the founders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, was on the march and was among the group taking the petition to the governor.

Dr. LOWERY: Your life was in jeopardy to even seek the right to register to vote, and on the other hand, it was ridiculous--a young college graduate went somewhere in south Alabama to register and the registrar, chewing tobacco, spat in the spittoon and asked him to recite the Preamble to the Constitution, which begins, I think, `We, the people,' and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. LOWERY: ...the young man didn't know it but he knew the Gettysburg Address. So he looked at his registrar and decided to recite the Gettysburg Address. `Fourscore' and so forth and all the way down to `and this government of the people, for the people and by the people should not perish on the Earth.' And he got through and he stood there, trembling, wondering what the reaction would be, and the old man said, `My God, the boy knows the Preamble, don't he?'

ADLER: Five months after the march, the Voting Rights Act was signed by President Lyndon Johnson. When asked what real effect the Voting Rights Act had had, Joseph Lowery and conference organizer Gwen Patton didn't miss a beat.

Dr. LOWERY: When we marched in '65 and when the act was passed, there were only about 300 black elected officials all over the country, and today, we're approaching 10,000. So it changed the face of the nation.

Dr. PATTON: When you got rid of the poll tax, then poor white people could vote. Indeed, when you got rid of the poll tax, white women could vote because, see, the husbands paid the poll tax for their wives and then told the wives who they should vote for.

ADLER: There were rows of young people in the audience at the Montgomery state Capitol. There were children from several churches, schools and self-help organizations, as well as some of the daughters, sons and grandchildren of those who had marched. One person who came to Montgomery was Mary Liuzzo Lilleboe. Her mother, Viola Liuzzo, a white woman, mother of five, came to the march from Detroit and was later killed by the Ku Klux Klan. Mary Lilleboe was 17; she had one older and three younger siblings.

Ms. MARY LIUZZO LILLEBOE: We didn't just lose our mom, but she was replaced by something else--you know, a tragedy, a murder, a cover-up--and I had just kind of buried who she was.

ADLER: But now that a documentary film, "Home of the Brave," has been made about her mother, Mary Lilleboe says having a constitutional right to vote doesn't necessarily mean you are able to exercise that right without a fight.

Ms. LILLEBOE: Sometimes it takes real Americans, real true patriots--those 25,000 that were here 40 years ago were true Americans. They believed enough in America to stand up and demand that she deliver what she was promising.

ADLER: In the end, it was perhaps Montgomery, Alabama's, mayor, Bobby Bright, who talked about the vote in the most basic and simple terms.

Mayor BOBBY BRIGHT (Montgomery, Alabama): This is not a legislative right; this is a natural right. This is a human right.

ADLER: The right to vote, he said, is as natural as breathing.

Margot Adler, NPR News.

LUDDEN: Our thanks to the Friends of the Selma-to-Montgomery Historic Voting Rights Trail, to Court TV and National Public Radio's "Justice Talking," who sponsored the Montgomery town meeting.

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