The Voting Rights Act, 45 Years Later
On the anniversary of President Johnson's landmark legislation, The Root talks to those who fought the good fight in getting black folks the vote.
In Georgia, the other "legend" is Charles Sherrod, husband of the now suddenly famous Shirley Sherrod. A Petersburg, Va., native, Sherrod was the first of the sit-in students to leave college to work full-time for the SNCC. In 1961 he began organizing in southwest Georgia -- a region as hostile to black voting rights as any part of Mississippi. Reflecting on this dangerous work that was sometimes punctuated by murder, Sherrod rejects the idea that what he did was heroic. "All we really did was speak to and listen to people. They had the power to do the rest. We got them to see that voting was important enough for people to suffer whatever they had to in order to prevail."
Today, Sherrod says, "We have political power but not economic power. There are plenty of churches. Where are the economic-development projects that hire people?"
And this, he quickly adds, is not just about what white people do or don't do. "We have money, or at least I'm told we have money. We don't have the trust to put money in the hands of brothers."
The movement in southwest Georgia was powerful. It helped win the right to vote. Why isn't the collective effort that defined it still at play? He's not sure. "We did things together out of the urgency of the hour then, and I saw it in the [Flint River] flood of 1994 -- people helping people. I have not seen it since."
Bob Mants, an Atlanta native, worked with Charles Sherrod in southwest Georgia, then came to Lowndes County, Ala., with Stokely Carmichael in 1965. He is emphatic: "Yes, after 400 years of being in this country disenfranchised, getting voting rights was worth everything we went through to get them."
But, he adds, some black elected officials, "elected because of their color, lack understanding of the struggles black people had to go through to get them in public office."
Lowndes County was known as "Bloody Lowndes" for its racist violence. When Mants arrived, 80 percent of its population was black, yet no black person was registered to vote. In less than a year, blacks were a majority of the county's registered voters. But this very rural county is as poor now as it was in 1965.
"A lot of us were caught up in the whole thing of race. I've learned you've got to look beyond color to who is really going to represent you."
Black politicians caught up in scandal and at risk of jail or expulsion from office get no sympathy from Mants. "We came up under Pharaoh and can't do what the Canaanites do," he says. "These politicians should know they're under scrutiny. They get caught, then they want you to have a defense team for them. That dog don't hunt for Bob no more."
Charles Cobb Jr. is a regular contributor to The Root.