"A few years ago, people could not vote simply because of the color of their skin," recalls Georgia Congressman John Lewis, former chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). "You had to count the number of jelly beans in a jar or the number of bubbles in a bar of soap. Black teachers and college professors could not pass [those] literacy tests."
Lewis, who spoke recently at a small political dinner in Jacksonville, Fla., was jailed 40 times as a young man fighting for the right to vote. As a freedom rider, he was beaten bloody by a white mob in Montgomery, Ala. And a police beating while he was protesting the denial of voting rights in Selma gave Lewis a concussion. Congressional colleagues call him the Legend. His efforts, and those of his colleagues, not only led to the franchisement of African Americans but also contributed to unprecedented numbers of black political leaders being elected into office across the country.
The Voting Rights Act, signed into law August 6, 1965, dramatically increased black voting strength, especially in the South. In Alabama, there were just 53,336 black voters in 1960; three decades later, there were 537,285 — a tenfold increase. Selma's notorious Sheriff Jim Clark was voted out of office in 1966 (and in 1978 was sent to prison for smuggling marijuana).
Acutely aware that Southern soil is soaked with black people's blood, Lewis said he cried tears of joy when Barack Obama was sworn in as president. However, warned Lewis, "We can't stop now. If we don't do what we must do, we will not be crying tears of happiness, but tears of pain."
Lewis was in Jacksonville to support Congresswoman Corrine Brown's efforts to get Florida voters to reject two "Fair Districts" constitutional amendments on the November ballot. The amendments would redraw state legislative districts; Brown describes the legislation as "bleaching" her district.
But new challenges to black power are not the only concern of activists who fought and organized for voting rights. Talk to them and you often hear something between weariness and worry and even outright anger at black elected officials. "Most look like a band of hustlers to me," says Muriel Tillinghast, who in 1964 directed a voting rights drive in Issaquena County, Miss. "The courage of Mississippi blacks" is what remains strongest in her mind. "I don't think people understand what Mississippi was like." She lives in New York City now, "and when I talk to New York blacks, they are awash in excuses about everything." She sighs. Winning voting rights was an important battle, but "it takes two or three generations to win the war."
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.