“The first Sunday in March, 1965, we marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama for the right to vote. That movement to change America came because young people came alive,” recalled Jesse Jackson in a speech last week at Free the Children’s We Day youth rally in Montreal, noting that in 1960 he had been jailed with classmates for simply using a public library.
But this week, Alabama streets are again filling with civil rights activists. Rev. Al Shapton’s National Action Network is leading a six-day re-enactment of the Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights marches — which began with what became known as “Bloody Sunday” after segregationist governor George Wallace sicked baton-wielding riot police on 600 peaceful protestors, a shocking display of violence that sparked the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Thousands, including 19 members of congress, 30 Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr.’s son, kicked off the protests Sunday, March 4 which will culminate in a March 9 rally at Martin Luther King Jr.’s old Baptist church in the state capital.
Though not yet the 50th anniversary, activists are (back) up in arms over election year attempts to pass what they see as racially-motivated voter ID laws, early voting restrictions and voting bans for ex-felons in regions where minorities make up a disproportionate percentage of the prison population.
Across the south — from racially-charged redistricting in Texas, to voter-registration suppression in Florida, to a lawsuit against the Obama administration for rejecting its Voter ID law as discriminatory in South Carolina — the Voting Rights Act is being attacked under the banner of states’ rights, the same argument they’ve been making since Reconstruction.
“States’ Rights mean the states have the sovereign right to impose tyranny of the majority on the minority,” Jackson, the South Carolina-born civil rights activists, told reporters backstage at Montreal’s Theatre St-Denis.
The Brennan Center for Justice reports that over the past year, 15 states have enacted restrictions making it “significantly harder for more than five million eligible voters to cast ballots in 2012.” This is despite the fact that, as the “Colbert Report” memorably mocked last week, voter fraud rates are as low as 0.00004%. (As well, The New York Times noted in a piece titled ‘The Myth of Voter Fraud,’over 21 million Americans lack government ID cards, and “many of them are poor, or elderly, or Black and Hispanic.”)
States’ Rights is about ideology, Jackson said. “That’s why this is more the Fort Sumter Tea Party not the Boston Tea party,” he added, referencing the historic site that saw the first shots fired after the South seceded. In April 1861, South Carolina troops began bombarding the federal garrison near Charleston, which quickly fell, helping to spark the bloody civil war.
“Let’s distinguish the two,” Jackson continued. “The Boston Tea Party was fighting to overthrow colonialism and to end oppression. The Fort Sumter Tea Party is working to overthrow the federal government to maintain state power.”
This isn’t the first time Jackson has used the racially-charged event in reference to the Tea Party.
Tea Party politicians and the Republicans they’ve influenced have couched their message in terms of economics. But some, such as Salon writer Michael Lind, who coined the Fort Sumter epithet during last summer’s debt ceiling debate, beg to differ. Lind described the Tea Party as “merely the latest of a series of attacks on American democracy by the white Southern minority, which for more than two centuries has not hesitated to paralyze, sabotage or, in the case of the Civil War, destroy American democracy in order to get their way.”
Jackson clearly agrees.
“If your issue is about the economic order and not about the [racial] Trojan horse, then if Barack brings the troops out of Iraq, that should affect your vote. If he stops 800,000 jobs a month from leaving, that should affect your vote. The auto industry was about to go out of business and now it’s back number one in the world again. If it’s about economics, there are enough economic indicators to cause a shift — except economics is not the issue,” Jackson said.
“The Fort Sumter Tea Party has an agenda that is different than just economics; it has an ideology deeply rooted in the Confederate ideology. That’s why people like [Newt] Gingrich and [Rick] Perry so freely use the issue of the tenth amendment and states’ rights.
“This is an attempt to re-fight the civil war. It’s not about money.”
Abraham Lincoln, of course, was a Republican. This made the south an electoral bastion for Democrats for about a century until President Lyndon Johnson, pushed by the actions of Jackson’s mentor, Martin Luther King Jr., implemented the 1964 Civil Rights Act and sent the south into the arms of the Republicans
But after the so-called ‘Compromise of 1877′ — which ended the Reconstruction Era along with federal enforcement of racial equality laws in the South — the segregationist states cited the tenth amendment in their fight to maintain institutional racism, saying that such laws were a matter of states’ rights.
That amendment has come up again repeatedly during this electoral season thanks to Tea Party-tied conservatives like Newt Gingrich, who just last week, “opened his final one-week dash to the crucial Georgia primary on Wednesday with a states’ rights appeal laden with racial symbolism.” Said Gingrich, who was accused earlier in the campaign of using food stamps as a racial dog whistle, “I want to return power back home to an extraordinary degree.”
Amid all this, affirmative action has also come under attack. The Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case of a young white woman who claims she was discriminated against by University of Texas, which takes race into account when conducting admissions. Depending on how the Court rules, it risks setting precedent that could weaken or even overturn affirmative action laws.
“Race is the central moral flaw of our culture, it is the lynchpin between justice and injustice, equality and inequality,” said Jackson. “[Republicans have] never stopped trying to remove race as a factor in access to schools, jobs and contracts — and if this Supreme Court wipes it out as a factor, among many other factors, it would be a radical throwback to 1964.
“That is the real aim of this right-wing Fort Sumter Tea Party — their mission is to turn back the clock a half-century.”