It was fifty years ago. Three college students, two white men from New York and one African American from Mississippi, traveled to Philadelphia, Mississippi to register African Americans to vote. Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, the whites, and James Chaney, the African American, were kidnapped and murdered by a carload of Ku Klux Klansmen led by a county sheriff. Their bodies weren’t found for forty-four days. When they were there was an unprecedented national outcry…and their murders, together with other violence against civil rights workers across the South that summer, led directly to passage of the Voting Rights Act, signed into law by President Johnson the following summer.
In the summer of 2013, not quite fifty years later, the United State Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice John Roberts, struck down key parts of the Voting Rights Act on the theory that it was no longer needed, that racism itself had ceased to exist in the South. On the very day of the decision, three Southern states…Texas, Mississippi and South Carolina…put into effect among the most restrictive voter suppression laws aimed at, among others, the rights of African American and other minorities.
One wonders what the ghosts of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner would think of the current Supreme Court and it’s reasoning in the Voting Rights case.
People fought and people died for the things embodied in the Voting Rights Act. And now, in state after state…in the North as well as the South…restrictions have been placed on voters of color. Such laws have been struck down in both Ohio and Pennsylvania and are under attack in Wisconsin. The R’s have learned that their base won’t tolerate any outreach to minorities so that the only way they have a chance to win is to keep groups apt to vote Democratic from the polls. Their means are subtler than the old time poll tax or literacy test. But they are no less effective…and no less offensive.
Freedom Summer was about one thing…the right to vote. One would like to think that we have progressed in fifty years. And yet, when we look, when we see that the New South seems now to be going the way of the Old Confederacy, we see politicians stripping rights from citizens with no regard to the Constitution they claim to revere.
And yet…they can make it harder to vote, but even they dare not make it impossible. So we must get out there. Where we need ID’s, we get ID’s. Where we need rides, we get rides. And, in November, we do what they least want us to do.
Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner would ask for nothing less.