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Four Girls Jubilee, September 15, 2013

Four Girls Jubilee
Call to Action
September 15, 2013
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Burns Blog 6, 8/6/2013

How Can We Save the Voting Rights Act & Secure Universal Suffrage?

 Almost half a century ago on August 6th, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, with Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders standing behind him. What was the spark that brought it about?

Right after the March on Washington in August 1963, a federal court ordered Birmingham to begin desegregating its public schools, though with baby steps: 5 black children in 3 white schools. Sitting together at lunch counters was bad enough, but the real threat of “mongrelization” was about to come true—the commingling of black and white kids at school, where they could make friends.  Governor George Wallace sent the Alabama National guard to block it. President Kennedy federalized the guard to withdraw the soldiers. The 5 brave kids enrolled in the white schools despite the incensed mobs.

On Saturday, September 14, “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss, the Klan chief, told his wife and niece that he had found the address of “the nigger girl that was going to integrate the school.” He boasted that he had enough “stuff put away to flatten half of Birmingham. You just wait till after Sunday morning,” he told them. “They will beg us to let them segregate.”

In fact the Klan’s terrorist bombing of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on Sunday, September 15th, 1963, ghastly though it was, failed to terrorize the black community in Birmingham and beyond. It had the opposite effect. It empowered African Americans in Alabama to fight back, not with violent retaliation, their immediate impulse, but to achieve the one unifying goal that would not just deter such attacks but obtain durable freedom and justice: securing universal suffrage. To empower black citizens to elect their own sheriffs, mayors, and county commissioners, and to serve on juries capable of locking up white terrorists. By this means, the century-old reign of terror by white supremacists would before long be largely eradicated.

Although the four girls’ families and friends, and the civil rights leaders, were traumatized by the Klan bombing, and though a few of those most committed to nonviolence were ready to track down the killers and kill them, the movement not only responded with amazing nonviolent grace but was somehow able to take the long view. Out of their grief and fury they launched the final stage of the black suffrage campaign that achieved the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Might it not make sense for the 50th anniversary commemorations of Birmingham Sunday to honor the four slain girls, and others who gave their lives, by igniting another great campaign for universal suffrage, sadly still the unfinished business of the civil rights movement? Specifically a national grassroots campaign to force Congress to do what the Supreme Court actually recommended: to reenact the Voting Rights Act, restoring and updating Section 4 that has prevented flagrant abuses of voting rights in the past and in the present (e.g., voter ID laws and racial redistricting, which are the poll taxes and literacy tests of the 21st century). If the Republicans resist, to compel President Obama to take executive action—even if such bold action gets overturned by the Supreme Court. Thus would arise a battle royale that might whip up a popular revolt for democracy.

The Four Girls Jubilee on September 15th will be an opportunity for students and citizens of all ages to dialogue, to perform, to vigil, to go door-to-door—spreading the word face to face and through social media about the suppression of universal suffrage in America (foreign to other advanced democracies), and what we the people can do about it. Such mass actions as sending letters and emails to legislators and online petitions by millions of citizens. Maybe before long to make another great march on Washington, not to gather at the Lincoln Memorial but inside Congress, the “people’s house,” to congregate in lawmakers’ offices and hearing rooms (“mill-ins”)—perhaps even peacefully “occupy” offices of recalcitrant congressmen until full voting rights have been regained, strengthened—and made irreversible.

Let us honor the lives of Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and Denise McNair in a way that might truly do justice to the cause for which they died.

Comments

  1. lee Beckom says:

    Great blog. Good history lesson plus a strong push for action. Keep up the good work Stewart.

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