As I sit at my desk this Friday before the 2020 U.S. Presidential General Election, my mind is on a week I spent with my friend and civil rights icon Representative John Lewis. While on the House floor one day in 2005, my colleague John Lewis asked me to join him for the 40th anniversary reenactment of the 1965 Voting Rights March that he and Martin Luther King led from Birmingham, through Selma, and on to Montgomery, Alabama. It was a trip that changed my life and perceptions of racism forever.
When our plane arrived in Birmingham, we were met by Fred Shuttlesworth and Dorothy Cotton. Both were fearless champions of the civil rights movement. Pastor Shuttlesworth and I had several long talks that week and I will never forget his stories about being bombed out of his bed by the “Klan” for trying to enroll his children in public schools and for having the “audacity” to attempt to register to vote. Dorothy Cotton was probably the highest ranking woman in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and led the Citizen Education Program that taught African-Americans both how to register and why it was important to vote in the 1960s. It broke my heart to hear her stories that sharecroppers and farm workers were so socially put down and educationally deprived that they did not believe they were “worthy of voting for our nation’s leaders.” So often for Dorothy and other civil rights leaders, they had to start at the very basic level of promoting enough self-esteem among the “Negro Community” that its members were in fact “worthy as human beings” of casting a vote, before organizers could even begin the process of standing up to voter suppression and intimidation tactics from the Klan and other racist groups of the era. In one community, we were introduced to one lovely elderly lady, who stood shaking on her cane, but with her back straight and proud, about the “pride and good feeling she had casting her first vote!” She said, for the first time in her life she felt like she “belonged and that her voice mattered.” “I felt like a queen,” she remembered.
In Selma we learned that in order for an African-American to register to vote, applicants had to count the jelly beans in a large apothecary jar on the registrar’s desk as a means to meet the “educational requirement in the law at that time.” White voters were assumed to be “educated,” and didn’t have to do the same “test.” In other areas, we learned of “poll taxes” that, while nominal, were often beyond the capacity of the poorest residents.
Below is a picture of (left to right) my colleague, Rep. John Lewis, a young Latina college student from my district who won an essay contest I hosted on voting rights in my congressional district, Fred Shuttlesworth, and I marching across the Edmund Pettis Bridge. The Bridge is named after a Klan member and I have recently joined locals to rename the bridge after John Lewis. (Browse the internet for the Edmund Pettus Bridge project if you would like to join the renaming effort.)
Both John and Fred have passed on – John just a few months ago; but their work and mission continues through volunteers that believe voting rights and the protection of those rights are fundamental to our democracy. Despite significant reforms that John Lewis and others championed, subtle, but no less important impediments to voter access are popping up around the country. I am so proud of our Foley and Lardner colleagues who act as poll watchers and citizen advocates, and use their legal training to make sure that every citizen has an opportunity to cast a vote, and that every properly cast ballot is counted.