Just 11 years old at the time, Joanne Bland now readily admits she didn't fully understand everything she was marching for when she joined her older sister and hundreds of her neighbors from Selma, Ala., on the morning of March 7, 1965, in crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge — with the about-to-be-thwarted goal of taking their demand for the right to vote to the state capitol in Montgomery.
Her journey toward political awareness was forged in those next few moments that now live in infamy as "Bloody Sunday" — the shots of tear-gas canisters that she fearfully mistook for gunfire, the phalanx of troopers with billy clubs and on horseback that pushed her and the other marchers back, and finally cradling her sister in the shelter of a car back on the Selma side, realizing that what she first thought were teardrops was actually blood.
Since then, that connection between freedom and the right to vote became a guiding principle of the now-64-year-old Bland's life — so much so that she founded a small National Voting Rights Museum in her hometown and then launched a business called Journeys for the Soul that takes visitors to the iconic bridge, the courthouse where Sheriff Jim Clark blocked would-be voters, and the Brown Chapel AME Church, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. rallied his troops.
She also pays close attention to the news, and when reports flashed last week that officials in Georgia had turned back a bus full of black senior citizens headed to the polls for early voting — the latest outrage in a national campaign of voter suppression that has stretched from the red hills of Georgia to the badlands of North Dakota's Indian Country — Bland's only surprise was that what she perceives as racism has become so "blatant" in the Trump era.
"Some of this stuff parallels the '60s — they just call it by a different name," Bland told me this week by telephone, describing how survivors of the civil rights era are feeling déjà vu as they watch the headlines in 2018's midterm elections.
What's changed in recent years, she added, is that social media is making more people more aware more quickly of the worst abuses — "people can see it now in real time," she said — and yet even that hasn't stopped some of the nastiness of the worst suppression, which seems to have a champion at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Today, Bland told me, "people are empowered to be mean."
I wanted to reach out to someone like Bland who'd taken part in the fight for voting rights in the Deep South because …
a) the symbolism of white Southern lawmen in Jefferson County blocking a busload of black voters from going to the polls is a historic echo of the time when buses were so emblematic of the fight for basic freedoms, from Rosa Parks being told to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery in 1955 to the Freedom Riders who were viciously beaten trying to integrate long-distance bus routes and …
b) those images — MLK and the Montgomery bus boycott, a Greyhound bus set ablaze by an angry white mob, the mayhem on the bridge in Selma — have been part for the last half-century of an all-American feel-good story that we're now seeing (and should have realized much earlier) was utter baloney, a fairy tale. The fundamental fight over who votes and who doesn't in America wasn't won. It was never fully resolved, and now it's in crisis again — just like in 1965. Once again, the fate of our survival as a democracy depends on the outcome.
In Jefferson County, Ga., activists and officials are still quarreling over why the bus carrying about 40 black seniors — aiming to cast ballots in a year when Stacey Abrams has a 50-50 shot at becoming Georgia's first African American and first female governor — was turned around; officials say the voters weren't authorized to leave their nursing home with strangers, while LaTosha Brown of Black Voters Matter called it "an intimidation tactic." The county officials insist the seniors will eventually get to vote, and hopefully they're right.
Even so, hundreds of thousands of would-be 2018 voters probably won't be so lucky:
— Since the Supreme Court gutted key provisions of the federal 1965 Voting Rights Act — the law that was passed in reaction to what transpired in Selma — purges of voting rolls have soared by at least 33 percent, and nonwhites make up a disproportionate number of voters getting struck. In just one day in 2017, Georgia kicked 107,000 people off its voter rolls only because they hadn't voted in the last election. The right-wing GOP official behind that move, Secretary of State Brian Kemp, is now the Republican gubernatorial nominee against Abrams.
— Also in Kemp's Georgia — an epicenter of voter suppression, yet not unique — Republican lawmakers last year passed an "exact match" law that has held up an estimated 53,000 voter registrations, mostly from African Americans, when some small discrepancy like a different middle initial emerges when compared with other state records.
— Also since the 2013 Supreme Court ruling, officials across the country and especially in Southern states like Louisiana, Texas, Arizona, and, of course, Georgia have moved to close polling places — some 868, by one count — and I'm sure you'll be shocked to learn that many of these are in predominantly black communities or in other places, like college campuses, that tilt toward Democrats.
— Perhaps the most egregious voter-suppression abuse is taking place not in Georgia but in North Dakota, where Native American voters, energized by issues like the bitterly fought Keystone XL pipeline, could again be the margin of difference with Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp seeking reelection in a heavily Republican state. GOP lawmakers there enacted a bill requiring that voters provide a street address — fully aware that many of those living on reservations do not have one. Tribal leaders are frantically issuing addresses to their people — but it may be too late.
Even the president of the United States' message when it comes to Nov. 6 is not to urge citizens to exercise their constitutional rights — but to warn potential voters they could be arrested.
This is the near-bottom of a vicious, utterly cynical cycle driven by Republican politicians who've learned that the fewer Americans who vote, the better they do in the results and who, gaining power in our statehouses, use their majorities to pass additional laws that make voting even harder. Their actions dishonor the blood that was shed on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Many of these crass antidemocratic maneuvers can by undercut by raw determination, by people willing to go the extra mile to get a new ID card or wait for hours on these ridiculously long lines or somehow get a ride to those polling places that are still open. "People are standing on that line for the Powerball ticket," Bland told me, "and they can stand on line to vote."
True. But what if America didn't make it so hard — if we didn't try to claim that voting is our fundamental right and then erect a world-class obstacle course to make it happen? The other day I was looking for a document at home and stumbled across the draft card that the government sent my son when he turned 18. Why didn't they include a voter registration card in the envelope?
Automatic voter registration after age 18 — interact with the government and you're registered, unless you opt out — should be the law in all 50 states. So should early voting, including polls that are open on weekends and not just a Tuesday when most people are working, as well as voting by mail. Congress must act to restore the full-fledged Voting Rights Act that was passed in 1965 and largely undone by a conservative Supreme Court, and it needs to figure out how to make better ballot access a uniform thing for federal elections in every state (it figured out, after all, how to do that with the 21-year-old drinking age). And former inmates who've paid their debt to society have a right to vote.
These ideas have kicked around for decades but — even after the fiasco of the 2000 presidential election and the Florida recount — they've always been placed on the back burner. I wish Democrats — on the short end of most of these schemes — would make voting rights a frontline issue. Of course to get there, they'll have to win more elections — in a system that is increasingly rigged. More than 50 years later, America still hasn't figured out how to get across that Edmund Pettus Bridge.