Remembering the long assault on voting rights
Dec 23, 2014 09:48PM
● By Kerigan Butt
Courtesy photo Dr. Gary May is a University of Delaware professor, historian and the author of five books.
By Richard L. Gaw
The hands in the photograph on the cover of the book tell everything there is to know about the oppression and struggle of an entire race of Americans to gain justice.
The hands belong to an African-American man. In his right hand, he holds a pencil, and presses it against a voting ballot, while he balances the ballot with his left hand. The photograph was taken in Camden, Ala., in 1966, just a few months removed from the passage of landmark legislation that gave African Americans secure access to voting booths.
The book tells a larger story, filled with heroes and villains, prejudice and policy, segregation and persistence and ultimately, transformation.
"Bending Toward Justice," [Basic Books, 2013], written by University of Delaware History Professor and historian Gary May, is a broad, sweeping account of what led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, which was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965.
Fellow historians have lauded the book for its detailed narrative, May himself received praise from legendary journalist Bill Moyers, when at an appearance on Moyers' PBS news show. Moyers told May, "You've written a book that can change this country again, if every citizen reads it."
"There is no story more inspiring and interesting in American history than the civil rights movement," May said from his home in Newark. "There was a compelling story here, and I like telling a good story."
May approached the writing of "Bending Toward Justice" the way he has approached the other four books he has written: As a storyteller. He grew up in a show business family in Los Angeles in the late 1950s; his grandfather, M.K. Jerome, was a Warner Brothers songwriter whose credits included Casablanca and Yankee Doodle Dandy. His uncle, Stuart Jerome, was a veteran television writer for "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" and "The Fugitive."
"I view history cinematically," May said. "I want to contribute to the knowledge we already have, but history for me are these stories of drama and success and failure and blood and corruption."
Over the last 60 years, the story of civil rights in America is one told through the camera's eye: Police dogs trained on African Americans throughout the bigoted southern states; protestors being pelted by massive jets of water from law enforcement officials; the inspiring speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; and the marches on Selma, Montgomery and Washington, D.C.
These images are all told in narrative in May's book, but rather than just focus on the headliners, May introduces the reader to behind-the-scenes leaders, whose crusades both public and private helped form a groundswell of support. He decided to begin the book in the tumultuous period of the 1960s, with the story of Bernard Lafayette, a 22-year-old member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.
The book also tells the story of Rev. George Washington Lee, who encouraged his parishioners in Mississippi to register to vote. He was later shot and killed.
"I get chills when I begin to tell this story," May said. "These people, many of whom are unknown to most Americans, were absolutely extraordinary. When we think of the Voting Rights Act, we think of Martin Luther King, Jr., and LBJ, but it also included a group of people who risked their jobs, their homes and often their lives. I felt privileged to be able to tell their stories."
The entire history of the African American vote in the United States can best be described as a tremendous surge met with an equal force of resistance. On one end, there are freedom fighters, religious leaders and concerned citizens pulling toward legislation and freedom, while on the other end, the counterattack of the movement has been a more than 100-year effort to suppress the vote.
The 14th and 15th Amendments of the Constitution that abolished slavery and gave African Americans the right to vote -- as well as the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act -- have been met with little regard by segregationists over the past century, May said. While events like the Selma to Montgomery March (commonly known as Bloody Sunday, when protestors were met with resistance at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma) represented the physical violence perpetuated on African Americans during the 1960s, a more subtle form of suppression has enabled many southern states to get around the amendments in order to prevent African Americans from voting.
"There were an unlimited number of policies set up to prevent African-Americans from going to the voting booths, like poll taxes, and incredibly difficult literacy tests," May said. "It was clearly about racism, but it was also about power. White southern segregationists wanted to maintain this system of segregation, which was the core of southern life, and anything that threatened that just sent most whites into a rage."
One of the primary examples of voter suppression has been to shorten periods for voting, and prohibiting voting on Sundays.
"Voting on Sunday has been terribly important to the African American community, many of whom have voted after they leave church,” May said. “The expression has been, 'You take your soul to the poll.' In some places, that has been prohibited. We have more people aware of this than in the past, but the legal process remains long and tortuous."
In 2013, the Supreme Court voted five to four in favor of invalidating key components of the Voting Rights Act. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg quoted from May’s book in her eloquent dissent, and former Justice John Paul Stevens, a lifelong Republican, praised the book in the “New York Review of Books,” at the same time attacking his former colleague’s decision. That decision overturned critical aspects of the law, namely Section 4, the formula the federal government uses to determine which states and counties are subject to continued oversight of voting policies. The result quickly allowed nine southern states to be given the green light to change their voting laws as they wished. To many who opposed the decision, the proverbial gasoline on the fire came when Justice Antonin Scalia referred to the Voting Rights Act as “a perpetuation of racial entitlement.”
May said that although Republican-led legislatures in the South gleefully rejoiced at the decision, a rapidly diversified America -- in which the non-white population is expected to outnumber whites in the coming decades -- may eventually win out in the end.
"Many of these legislatures believe that the only way they can beat the new America is not to adjust to it, but to stop it," he said. "But demography is destiny, and if the Republican party wants to survive, they have to realize that they can't turn this tide back. This is a great historical change coming to be."
For the last 40 years, May has taught history at the University of Delaware, while at the same time researching, writing and publishing five books. He will retire from teaching this coming January, and retirement will allow him more time for writing. This past summer he prepared a new preface, updating the voting rights story, for a paperback edition of “Bending Toward Justice” which will be published on December. And there will be more books to come, May hopes. His career is not ending.
When May imagines retirement, he sees himself as only a writer does: Continuing to write.
"The job of a historian is to bring history alive, and that's what I've tried to do for 40 years," May said. "I've had the good fortune and freedom to be able to write and teach things that interest me. I haven't gotten rich being a historian, but I've been rich in time and freedom, to do almost anything I wanted to do.”
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org .