Despite legitimately heartening developments like the legalization of same-sex marriage, it gets easier every day to arrive at the cynical conclusion that social progress in the United States just might be impossible because the troglodytes have at last reached critical mass. Look at something as fundamental to democracy as the vote: since the Supreme Court’s shocking 2013 evisceration of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, new onerous and racially-applied voter suppression laws are being trail-ballooned to take the place of long-outlawed tactics like poll taxes and literacy tests, all to ensure that African Americans can’t vote in significant enough numbers to topple white hegemony. And if people of color are excluded from the voter rolls, they can’t serve as jurors, ensuring not just the continuation but the strengthening of our nation’s enduring tradition of judicial outcomes that are skewed dramatically against non-whites.
(Before some “Party of Lincoln” troll points it out: yes, the Republicans used to be the somewhat less racist major party. That changed in 1964 and it’s been the party of white bigotry ever since. You’ve had 52 years to figure that out, and if you haven’t yet, you need to permanently shut your wronghole.)
The long and the short of all this is that if things continue going south (seewhatididthere) America might experience another Selma.
There’s a good reason that Selma, AL became a significant locus in the Civil Rights Movement, especially as regards voting rights. Selma in the early ‘60s was half black, but only 1% of black citizens were registered to vote. It’s not that they were disinterested. Besides the literacy test, Klan violence and other extra-legal disincentives to registration were widespread, and the registration office was only open two days a month, at difficult hours. By 1964, when serious voter drives were happening in black communities, a judge actually enjoined against organizing. The official nationwide desegregation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did little for voting rights, so activists organized a march from Selma to Alabama’s capital city of Montgomery. That march took place on Sunday, March 7th, 1965, and due to the unhinged brutality of the attacks on demonstrators by state troopers and county deputies, all basically acting under the aegis of the notorious segregationist Governor George Wallace, that day is forever known as Bloody Sunday.
Two weeks later, on Sunday the 21st, the march was attempted again. This time, the National Guard protected the marchers from violence by county and state authorities (and enthusiastic amateurs). About 3,000 people started the march in Selma—many of whom had traveled from around the country, shocked by the images of Bloody Sunday they’d seen in the news. By the time the marchers arrived safely in Montgomery, the demonstration’s population approached 25,000. The Voting Rights Act passed and was signed by President Lyndon Johnson later that year. And every hero who shed blood in the name of equality on Bloody Sunday was spat on by the SCOTUS in 2013 when they rendered that law utterly toothless.
To tie that history to contemporary perspectives on voting rights in America, documentary filmmaker Brian Jenkins, previously known for the vinyl-freak ode Records Collecting Dust (which you’ve perhaps read about on this very blog), has made Answering the Call. Jenkins’ uncle John Witeck was among those who heeded Dr. King’s plea for support in March of 1965; he marched on the so-called “Turnaround Tuesday” march on the 9th, and remained in Selma for other protests leading up to the final march to Montgomery, an experience which wound up catalyzing a lifetime’s work for social progress. For Answering the Call, he returned to Alabama with his nephew and a camera crew.
The doc doesn’t just trace the history of black disenfranchisement, it’s engaged in the now. With a racially-charged (to say the LEAST) presidential election fast approaching, the issue has reached new heights of urgency, and it’s amazing to hear the Secretary of State of Alabama letting NASTY racist dog-whistles fly so freely while discussing the franchise. I’m perpetually, existentially disheartened that we still have to be struggling over the exact same shit after half a century—Alabama’s Constitution remains loaded with segregationist provisions. They’re currently unenforceable thanks to federal laws that supersede them, but given the right SCOTUS, that could change shockingly quickly.
Asked for a statement on the film, director Jenkins responded to Dangerous Minds in an email exchange:
Only 60% of eligible voters in the United States will turn out on election day for a presidential election (even less for midterm and primary elections). I’m sympathetic to the 40% who choose not to participate but I’d like to pose the question, “If voting doesn’t matter, then why is the Republican Party working so hard to keep us from the polls?” Whether it’s gerrymandering, voter ID laws, eliminating early voting and same day registration, or switching up polling locations at the last minute, the GOP has made access to the polls a primary target and priority since the election of Barack Obama.
I had the chance to sit down with Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill and discuss the controversy surrounding the state’s voter ID law and it’s recent decision to close 31 DMV locations across the state—which made it even more difficult to register and vote in Alabama. Voting is a right guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution. So to hear a Secretary of State refer to this right as a “privilege” is deeply troubling and wrong.
More after the jump…