October 7 1963. 57 years ago today. Did you know about Freedom Day? I didn’t either until recently. Seems there are many events that were left out of my public school education as a child. Freedom Day was an organized effort to register Black voters in the Dallas County district of Alabama. The population of that area was 58% Black but only 1% of them were registered to vote. The majority lived in poverty and were usually disqualified to vote through “literacy” tests or citizenship questions which were assessed by the examiner not by the actual correct answer to the question.
The Dallas County Voters League and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee felt that if they could convince a large number of Blacks to register, they would be less afraid. It seems many who tried to register on their own lost jobs, housing, were arrested, beaten, imprisoned, lynched or otherwise killed. All for trying to exercise their LEGAL right to vote which was given to them by the 18th amendment in 1870.
On Freedom Day, 375 Black people showed up at the courthouse to register to vote at around 9:00 am. Still standing outside the doors at around 12:30 pm, they were informed that if they left the line for any reason, bathroom or to get food, they would not be allowed to get back in line. James Baldwin, an African American writer, was there with cameras and journalists to document the event. He and those in charge of the drive decided to feed the people while they were in line. Sandwiches were made to be passed out.
Rather than have the leaders of the event jailed, two young men volunteered to take the sandwiches to the people. They were promptly thrown to the ground and beaten with sticks, cattle prods and by the feet of an abundance of law enforcement, beginning with the first blow from the sheriff. The cameraman was also beaten. All of this occurred while the FBI and the Justice Department looked on.
But the people stayed anyway. This all happened before they even entered the building. All because they were standing in line to register. Once inside they would be subjected to the literacy test among other things. 375 in line, by the end of the day at 4:30 pm when the courthouse closed 12 had registered. They stood in line in the hot sun from 9:00 am to 4:30 pm, without leaving line or eating, watched others beaten for their sakes, and only 12 of them got to register.
James Balwin had this to say, “There were three hundred and seventy-five people in that street yesterday who could have been shot down under the eyes of the F.B.I., and the government could have done nothing about it. All these people were jeopardizing their lives, their jobs, their children, everything they had in order to stand on that line in order to vote, which is an American right and duty. And the government of the U.S., which can mount invasions of Cuba and “protect” the Vietnamese, cannot protect these people! That’s a lie. The government can do anything it wants to do. What it means is that the government does not dare yet to offend the Southern oligarchy.”
This event was the forerunner to others, including the bloody march in Selma, which eventually resulted in the Voting Rights Act being passed. This Act prevented the use of literacy tests, provided for federal oversight of voter registration in poor areas, and began the process to eventually cut poll taxes. Yes, they had to pay to vote. Yet, there wasn’t any enforcement, and in some places the Act was ignored all together because there was a high proportion of Black people and their vote would change the balance of power.
But that is in the past, right? Thankfully the Voter Rights Act passed and fixed all of this, right? Wrong. I have looked at maps of voting districts in counties near mine, they are divided so that Black areas are divided into smaller segments and combined with higher money white areas. The Black areas have 1 polling place whereas white areas have many. On and on it goes. Citizenship questions have been replaced with inconveniences and obstacles for people of color to vote.
I never understood why requiring a voter to have an ID was such a big issue. I mean we all have IDs for everything, right? It seemed to me that voting is important enough to be able to prove you are who you say you are. What I didn’t consider is how difficult it is for some people, the disabled and those in poverty, no matter what color, to get an ID.
If you have no vehicle and the place you have to go to get your ID (the registrar’s office, the DDS, the county courthouse, the passport office) is further than walking distance, it is an issue. Get a ride. Ride a bus, if you have the fare. Hire a taxi.
Once you have arrived at your destination there is paperwork to fill out. Government paperwork, which is tricky at best, downright impossible at worst. If you are not a good reader, or you struggle to communicate in writing, or you speak another language, the chances of successfully getting the paperwork correct are slim to none. I am a teacher of those who struggle to read and I can tell you they will give up trying before taking on something that they feel they cannot do. So we are right back to “literacy” testing to vote…only it is called something else now.
It is not an issue for most of us to get an ID, and so I never even considered the fact that I have multiple forms of ID is a privilege not received by others. It is an inequity which prevents those in poverty from casting their votes…for whatever candidate they prefer.
All of these issues are part of a system. A system that silences voices of some, while amplifying others. In a country where every voice is supposed to be heard, by the people for the people, a significant portion of the population is being marginalized and muzzled. If we are to require ID to vote, we must also require a way for ALL people to get one. If we are only going to have 1 polling place in certain districts, we must also require a way to make sure ALL people get to it on voting day. If we want equal representation for ALL people, we must draw the district lines so ALL people can be represented.
There is no need to tell me about fraudulent voting, or how districts are divided, or why all these obstacles are necessary. I can tell you all of it. I have. Passionately. I am not trying to convince anyone. I am simply trying to look at things from a different perspective. I am doing lots of research and listening. I am learning things I have never known. I was 2 months old at the time. I wasn’t taught any of this as a child. The one or two dots I knew before are being connected by hundreds more to which were kept from my view until this point.
All of this is new to me. All of this comes as I continue my quest to look at my own biases and foundations. All of this convicts me of my part and inspires me to do better because now I know better. I am pushing pause on my defensiveness as well as my need to be right. Instead, I am asking ‘What if’?
What if, I listen to the side of history I haven’t heard before? What if, there is something I have been missing? What if, my well thought out arguments were not well thought out at all? What if, the conviction tugging at my heart is God trying to get my attention to speak to me about injustice? What if, there are heroes I never knew about who have a different point of view than mine? What if, I listen instead of talk? What if, there is more to know? Today is Freedom Day and I am convinced that the 375 people who had the courage to stand on that day are the foundation for those who are still fighting to be heard.
Resources used for this article:
Eckman, Fern Marja. “Freedom Day, 1963: A Lost Interview with James Baldwin.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 22 Sept. 2020, https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/freedom-day-1963-a-lost-interview-with-james-baldwin/amp?fbclid=IwAR3mjmRL80HkM25U1YGGSguFt7_kBK43ALAPqdhcQ48eM9RQpb0R3rskrvE
History.com Editors. “Voting Rights Act of 1965.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 9 Nov. 2009,https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/voting-rights-act
Georgia My Voter Page, https://www.mvp.sos.ga.gov/MVP/mvp.do
Other resources for a more in depth understanding:
An excellent and eye opening documentary titled Let the People Decide http://letthepeopledecidedoc.com/?fbclid=IwAR3GxqA7FIPLi5X9sXnnyF3QgXPGrNXyrvdPQS6ozAMDg1EhWyiWsXOT4Fo
Selma Trailer https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x6t7vVTxaic
Photo credit and for more on Freedom Day https://snccdigital.org/events/freedom-day-in-selma/