Selma, and the Long Struggle for Voting Rights

Bruce Hartford, 2021

Address to John Lewis Memorial "Good Trouble Vigil for Democracy"
July 20, 2021. Oakland CA.  Video

Thank you for inviting me to speak today.

The battle for voting rights neither began nor ended in Selma, Alabama in 1965.

At our nation's founding, only white men of property could vote. Women, 50% of the population, were denied the vote. No slaves or freedmen, no Native Americans, no non-white immigrants were allowed to vote. No renters were allowed to vote. Nobody who lived with their employer — as was very common for apprentices and farm laborers in those days` — could vote. In some states, no Jews and no Catholics were allowed to vote. In the election of 1800, less than 15% of the adult population was eligible to cast a ballot.

Most of us in this crowd here today would not have been allowed to vote.

For 200 years, we Americans fought to expand and defend the ballot. We fought to end poll taxes and property qualifications. We fought to end tricks and literacy tests. Women fought and endured for 75 years to win suffrage. In the 1950s, in the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement, which most of us called the "Freedom Movement," fought for and won voting rights for people of color.

And let's be very clear. I chose to say "people of color" rather than African Americans, because the Voting Rights Act applied not just to one race, but to all nonwhite people. Here in California — you all know about the Voting Rights Act, section five, dealing with Mississippi and Alabama. There were counties in California that were also under that jurisdiction because of the systemic discrimination against Latino voters. The worst county was Kern County, which is currently represented by Republican Congressman Kevin McCarthy. The apple does not fall far from the tree.

On the last day of the Selma to Montgomery march, I found myself walking next to Rosa Parks. As we turned up Dexter Avenue, she touched my arm and pointed to a bus stop. "That's where I was arrested," she told me. On that dark and dreary December evening in 1955, she had taken a lonely stand for freedom and dignity. Now, on a crisp March day, 10 years later, she was marching past that spot with 30,000 fellow freedom fighters.

Thirty minutes later, a heavily armed phalanx of state troopers prevented us from reaching the Alabama Capitol steps. The same steps that Jefferson Davis stood on 100 years earlier when he was sworn in as the Confederacy's first and only President. Dr. King had to stand on a flatbed truck to tell us that "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice."

But only so long as people like Rosa Parks and you here today bend it so.

Defending and expanding the right to vote has always been a hard, bitter fight. Thomas Payne once observed, "Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered." He meant that the road to justice is long, hard, and stony. We've had, and we will continue to endure disappointments, setbacks, and outright defeats. But we'll also win victories.

You've all seen the photos and films of the savage attack against voting rights marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, when John Lewis and Amelia Boynton were so viciously beaten down. That historical event is now known as "Bloody Sunday." But just hours later, something equally important occurred in Selma, an event that few people living today know of. An event that transformed Bloody Sunday from a devastating defeat into an historic victory.

Two of the marchers on the bridge that day were Sheyann Webb and Rachel West. They were eight years old. That was not their first march. They used to sit on Dr. King's lap while he waited to speak in Brown Chapel. He referred to them as his "Littlest freedom fighters."

Years later, they wrote a book titled Selma, Lord Selma. In that book, Sheyann described what happened after Bloody Sunday, and I'm going to quote.

"When I first got to the church, my eyes were still swollen and burning from the tear gas. I sat with Rachel up towards the front. We were just sitting there crying, listening to the others cry. Some were even moaning and wailing. It was an awful thing. It was like we were at our own funeral.

But then later in the night, maybe 9:30 or 10:00, I don't know for sure, somebody there started humming. I think they were just moaning and it just went into the humming of a freedom song. It was real low, but some of us children began humming along soft and slow. It was like a funeral song. It was a dirge. At first, I didn't even know what song it was. Then I recognized it. Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me 'Round. I'd never heard it hummed that way before.

It started to catch on and the people began to pick it up. It started to swell, the humming. Then we began singing the words. We sang, 'Ain't going to let George Wallace turn me 'round. Ain't going to let no horses turn me 'round. Ain't going to let no teargas turn me 'round. Ain't going to let nobody turn me 'round.' We were singing and telling the world that we hadn't been whipped.

I think we all realized it at the same time that we had won something that day because people were standing up and singing like I'd never heard them sing before. When that singing started, we grew stronger. Each one of us said to ourselves that we could go back out there and face the teargas, face the horses face, whatever Sheriff Jim Clark could throw at us."

So today, we here today say, "Yes, Dr. King was right. The arc of the moral universe does bend towards justice." But only so long as people like us continue to bend it.

Thank you.


Copyright © Bruce Hartford

See Selma Voting Rights Campaign for background & more information.
See also Selma Voting Rights Campaign & March to Montgomery for web links.


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