Hank Sanders: 55 years and still struggling for the full right to vote

Hank Sanders: 55 years and still struggling for the full right to vote
We must keep struggling for the full right to vote. (Source: Holly Bernstein)

Fifty-five years. Fifty-five years and still struggling. Fifty-five years and still struggling for the full right to vote. I can’t stop. You can’t stop. We can’t stop. We must keep struggling for the full right to vote. Fifty-five years and still struggling for the full right to vote.

On March 25, 1965, I was among the crowd of 25,000 to 35,000 who heard Dr. Martin Luther King shouting the phrase, How Long? I heard the crowd shouting in response, Not Long! It was the final day of the historic Selma-to-Montgomery March. I left Montgomery that day convinced that it would not be long before we Black people would have the full and unfettered right to vote in The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. Fifty-five years and still struggling for the full right to vote.

It was not long after the Selma-to-Montgomery March that I became more convinced that not long meant months not years. On May 25, 1965, the U.S. Senate voted 70-30 to cut off debate on the 1965 Voting Rights Bill. On May 26, 1965, the Bill passed the Senate by a vote of 77-19. The House of Representatives passed the Bill on July 9, 1965. On August 3, the Joint Conference Committee Report was adopted by the House and Senate. On August 6, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Voting Rights Bill into law. Things were really moving. I just knew that not long was upon us. Fifty-five years and still struggling for the full right to vote.

I should have known in 1966 that Dr. King’s not long was biblical in time, not in human

months and years. In November 1966, I traveled to Lowndes County, Alabama with my friend and Talladega College classmate, Louis Brown. We went to help elect a slate of Black citizens seeking political office on the Lowndes County Freedom Organization Ballot. It was commonly called the Black Panther Party. We were convinced that not long would commence be right then and there. Fifty-five years and still struggling for the full right to vote.

Lowndes County had an 81 percent Black population and just a 19 percent White population. But not long did not commence then and there. Not a single Black person was elected in this 81 percent Black county. All kinds of tricks were employed, including kicking anyone out of their homes if they tried to vote. The homeless lived in tents. It was called Tent City and became a monument to voter suppression. Fifty-five years and still struggling for the full right to vote.

Faya Rose and I moved to Selma some six years later in 1971. We were committed to stay no more than five years. We had both finished Harvard Law School and then spent a year in West Africa on a Joint Ford Foundation Fellowship. We were not from Selma, but we chose to go live in this symbolic place of voting rights struggle. It was a city of just twenty-four thousand. We were certain that in five years the not long would be a shining reality and we could leave in good conscience to go live in Harlem, New York City, where Faya really wanted to live. Fifty-five years and still struggling for the full right to vote.

After five years in Selma, not even a dent had been made in translating Black voting rights into Black electoral success. Section 5, the key provision in the Voting Rights Act, which mandated preclearance of all voting changes, had already been extended for five years in 1970. In 1975 it was extended again for seven years. In 1982 it was extended for 25 years. In 2006, it was extended another 25 years. Fifty-five years and still struggling for the full right to vote.

The extensions of Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act were graphic manifestations of the enduring obstacles to the full implementation of voting rights for Black people in these United States of America. President Lyndon Johnson and the U.S. Congress initially felt that not long was five years. Therefore, the life span of Section 5 in the Voting Rights Act was set at five years. Then they thought another five years would fulfill not long. Then leaders thought seven additional years would meet the not long time frame. Fifty-five years and still struggling for the full right to vote.

By 1982, Congress perceived that the breath and depth of the challenges to full voting rights for Black people would take much longer. They extended Section 5 for 25 years to 2007 with Republican President Ronald Regan signing the bill into law. In 2006, Section 5 was extended for another 25 years with Republican President George Bush signing the bill into law. Fifty-five years and still struggling for the full right to vote.

The five years Faya and I had committed to Selma stretched to ten years, then 20 years, then 40 years. Now it has been 49 years. The struggle for full voting rights for Black people has been a constant and difficult battle over these years. We, along with others, fought in the community, in the courts, in local government, in state government, in the U.S. Attorney General’s Office, in national government and in every possible arena. Not long became very long, stretching over a half century. Fifty-five years and still struggling for the full right to vote.

Then the federal government ceased to even try to protect Black voting rights. In fact, it began destroying Black voting right. On June 25, 2013, the U. S. Supreme Court gutted Section 5 of the Voting Right Act in the Shelby County v. Holder case. Then the U.S. Congress refused to amend the Voting Rights Bill to revitalize the Section 5. And there was more. Fifty-five years and still struggling for the full right to vote.

When the Supreme Court gutted Section 5, a massive wave of voter suppression commenced the very same day in Texas. In Alabama, voter photo ID was implemented the very next day. The wave of suppression has continued with one thing after another including the closing of drivers license offices in a number of Alabama counties. As we approach the November 3, 2020 General Election voter suppression has reached the flood stage across the country. It comes in closing voting places, removing names of voters from voting lists and various disqualifications. Fifty-five years and still struggling for the full right to vote.

The truly powerful thing is so many people are still determined to vote in spite of three obstacles to voting. The long lines at the polls which we see on the television are both symbols of voter suppression and symbols of voters determination. Long live the struggle for the full right to vote. Fifty-five years and still struggling for the full right to vote.

Everything that is worthwhile requires struggle. If it is worthwhile, someone else wants it. That is also true for our right to vote. Fifty-five years is a long time to struggle. However, it is not too long to fight for the one right that protects all other rights. Fifty-five years and still struggling for the full right to vote.

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