Voting Rights: How Far Have We Come?

Introduction and conclusion by Megan Culbert. Story and research by Jim Shelley.

Today, we honor Black History Month by remembering Jimmie Lee Jackson, a person who stood up for his beliefs during an incredibly volatile time in American history. The murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson, an unarmed African American man who was killed on this day, February 18, in 1965, set off a chain of events, the effects of which still resonate today. The murder created a catalyst for the Selma to Montgomery marches, and the brutal attack on peaceful protestors at the first march—and the subsequent outrage it caused—led to the passing of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965. The United States Supreme Court struck down a provision of this important act in 2013, declaring it unconstitutional due to an outdated coverage formula. Read about the details of Jimmie Lee Jackson’s story below, and let us know what you think in the comments.

FEBRUARY 18th, 1965

The Murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson

Jimmie Lee Jackson was fatally shot by a state trooper at a civil rights protest on Feb. 18, 1965.

Jimmie Lee Jackson (AP file photo)

Jimmie Lee Jackson was born in Marion, Alabama, a small town near Selma. He fought in the Vietnam war and eventually returned to Marion where he worked as a laborer and became a church deacon.

He tried to register to vote several times, but Alabama’s legal roadblocks prevented him.

Even after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, most African Americans in the southern United States were still unable to vote because of registration requirements such as literacy tests and slow registration processes. In Selma, Alabama, the registration office was open only two days a month and could only process 15 registrations for each of these days. This was not nearly enough to register the 15,000 black citizens of voting age in the county. For two years, leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had been trying to break down these barriers, but received little outside support. In 1964, Judge Hare in Alabama passed a ban on mass meetings, making this organizational process even more difficult.

James Orange was a field secretary for the SNCC. In February 1965, authorities arrested and jailed Orange on charges of disorderly conduct and contributing to the delinquency of minors for enlisting students to aid in voting rights drives.

Fearful that Orange would be lynched, a group of local SNCC civil rights activists gathered to march in support of him on the evening of February 18, 1965. Shortly after the peaceful march began, Alabama State Troopers ordered the protesters to disperse, but simultaneously attacked them. Authorities had also turned off street lights.

Jimmie Lee Jackson, his mother, Viola Jackson, and his eighty-two-year-old grandfather, Cager Lee, were among those who tried to get away. The three escaped into a nearby cafe, but police followed them into the cafe and physically assaulted them. When Jimmie Lee Jackson came to the aid of his mother and grandfather, he was shot twice in the abdomen by trooper James Fowler.

Jackson managed to escape before collapsing. He died eight days later on February 26th at a local hospital. In his eulogy, Martin Luther King, Jr. described Jimmie Lee Jackson as a “martyred hero.” When civil rights organizer SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) Director of Direct Action James Bevel heard of Jackson’s murder, he called for a march—the first of three—from Selma to Montgomery to talk to Governor George Wallace about the attack that resulted in Jackson’s death in addition to voting rights issues. During the March 7, 1965 march, a wall of state troopers brutally attacked the peaceful protestors, and the day soon became known as “Bloody Sunday.”

That September, a grand jury declined to indict James Fowler.

Forty-two years later, on May 10, 2007, an Alabama grand jury indicted Fowler for the Jackson’s murder. Fowler pleaded guilty to one count of second-degree manslaughter on November 15, 2010. He apologized for the shooting, but insisted that he had acted in self-defense, believing that Mr. Jackson was trying to grab his gun.

Fowler was sentenced to six months in prison and was released early after serving 5 months due to health problems. He died on July 5, 2015.

On August 6, 1965, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The act aimed to overcome legal barriers at the state and local levels that prevented African Americans from exercising their right to vote under the 15th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. The act significantly widened the franchise and is considered among the most far-reaching pieces of civil rights legislation in U.S. history.

Thought the Act seemed a permanent victory for voting rights, on June 25, 2013, the US Supreme Court effectively cancelled the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by a 5-to-4 vote, freeing nine states, mostly in the South, to change their election laws without advance federal approval.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in her dissent, wrote, “For a half century a concerted effort has been made to end racial discrimination in voting. Thanks to the Voting Rights Act, progress once the subject of a dream has been achieved and continues to be made.”

“The court errs egregiously,” she concluded, “by overriding Congress’s decision.”

In 2014, a group of Congress members introduced the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014 to strengthen the Voting Rights Act, but both the House and Senate versions of the bill died in their respective Judiciary Committees. The House introduced the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2015 the following year, but it is not expected to move past the committee stage.

Let us know your thoughts on these questions in the comments:

  • What lessons should we take away from Jackson’s murder and its effects on the Selma marches and the Voting Rights Act of 1965?
  • Why do you think it took forty-two years for James Fowler to be indicted for Jimmie Lee Jackson’s murder?
  • What parallels do you see between the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson and other deaths of unarmed African American men and women in recent years?
  • Do you agree with the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision, or do you think that it has allowed some states to re-introduce barriers to voting?

Reference: Equal Justice Initiative site

Reference: Bio site

Reference: NYT article on 2013 Supreme Court decision

 

Jim Shelley

Jim Shelley, lifelong resident of Cliffside Park, NJ, is a retired high school social science teacher and attended the Woodstock Music and Art Fair when he was 19. Jim borrowed his future father-in-law’s binoculars and 35 mm camera, loaded the camera with one roll of Kodachrome, and planned on driving home on Sunday morning to bring his girlfriend (now wife) back up. That didn’t happen, but he did take the pictures, sometimes through the binoculars. In 2011, he became a volunteer at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts and later a docent there where he enjoys speaking to guests of all ages about the 1960s cultural revolution, its continued impact on our lives today, and how Bethel Woods Center for the Arts provides an outstanding setting for those conversations. He also writes for his own blog at http://woodstockwhisperer.info/.

Jim Shelley – who has written posts on WoodsTalk | Bethel Woods Center for The Arts.


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