Honoring the past while marching toward future
While remembering Selma, Sojourn to the Past looks at current voting challenges
YOUNGSTOWN — Brittany Bailey bristled as she ticked off what five bills from Republican-led state legislatures would do to restrict voting rights — something that also took her back to what she learned about the Jim Crow era.
Her voice also exuded a sense of confidence, however, that the efforts will result in determined pushback.
“It’s done under the table in the public eye,” Bailey, a member of Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past, said. “All of it is just maddening that they want to go this far.”
Bailey was referring to the more than 200 pieces of legislation that have been introduced, pre-filed or carried over in state legislatures this year that include provisions she contends will intentionally make it harder for mainly poor people and those of color to vote. The efforts by mainly Republican lawmakers are tantamount to a modern-day poll tax, she added.
Bailey said they also undermine the work of the late Georgia congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis, who was honored during a ceremony Sunday afternoon to commemorate the 56th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday.”
Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past hosted the somber 45-minute event.
Also remembered was the late Rev. C.T. Vivian, a longtime member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference who, like Lewis, was a proselytizer of nonviolent resistance and social change. Both died July 17, 2020.
Voter turnout for the Nov. 3, 2020, general election was the highest in 100 years, so many state lawmakers are trying to restrict voting rights that disproportionately affect and disenfranchise minorities, Bailey continued.
“They make a mockery of democracy,” she said, adding she fears that such rights are being rolled back.
On March 7, 1965, Alabama state troopers and sheriff’s deputies attacked an estimated 600 peaceful demonstrators on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, which resulted in Lewis suffering a skull fracture and nearly being killed.
On March 21, 1965, after Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr. lifted a temporary restraining order and secured federal protection for marchers, the five-day, 54-mile Selma-to-Montgomery march began. On its final day, about 25,000 people had gathered in Montgomery to celebrate the accomplishment.
During Sunday’s local commemoration, about 30 religious leaders, community activists and others walked silently in twos across the Mahoning Avenue Bridge, in a manner reminiscent of the Selma marchers. The local arched bridge’s spans look similar to a smaller version of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and both rise over rivers.
Also speaking at the gathering Sunday was Lekeila Houser, another Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past member who recalled that in the 1950s and 1960s, literacy tests, intimidation and poll taxes were the primary tools used to prevent blacks from registering to vote. Nevertheless, the violence of “Bloody Sunday” horrified many people nationwide and led to positive changes, she explained.
“The country was galvanized by what they saw on TV,” Houser said, noting that it was part of what led President Lyndon B. Johnson to sign into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Unlike overt efforts in the past to disenfranchise voters of color, today’s restrictive bills in state legislatures are often “done in secret,” she continued.
Another problem that needs addressed is that each of Ohio’s 88 counties has only one drop box for ballots. All of them are near the counties’ board of elections offices, noted Penny Wells, Sojourn to the Past’s executive director.
Wells urged attendees to contact Secretary of State Frank LaRose about the situation. In addition, she encouraged others to vote consistently, stay informed about what is going on locally and nationally and donate to the Montgomery, Ala.-based Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit legal advocacy organization that tracks hate groups and promotes tolerance education programs. The SPLC also litigates on behalf of victims of institutionalized racism and discrimination, undocumented workers who have been mistreated and people who have suffered the effects of inhumane treatment.
The Rev. Jim Ray of Poland, a longtime civil rights activist, read part of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “How Long? Not Long” speech he delivered March 25, 1965, at the end of the Selma-to-Montgomery march.
The commemoration ceremony ended with participants singing “We Shall Overcome,” which was the anthem of the civil rights movement.
Also Sunday, President Joe Biden signed an executive order to promote voting rights by making it easier for those eligible to register and to improve access to voting.