Martin Luther King, Jr., Center
Conference on the 1965 Voting Rights Act
Copyright, 1975, Julian Bond
January 13, 1975
Despite the tremendous percentile increases in the numbers of Black registered voters and Black elected officials in this region of the country since the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, it remains a necessity today.
Here is what the Washington Research Project reported in its study, The Shameful Blight:
"Black voter registration in the seven Southern states specially covered under the Voting Rights Act is still low, both in absolute and in comparative terms. There are many practices in different parts of the South which limit Black registration.
1. Hours of registration are customarily limited to normal business hours, making it inconvenient for Blacks to register.
In Leflore County, Mississippi voter registration is possible between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. "In order for most of the rural people to go to register," it was reported, "it has to be a rainy day because their boss will not let them off work to go and register." On one occasion six potential registrants were unable to register because " the registrar stalled for time until time for the office to close."
2. Registration is usually only possible at the county courthouse, an inconvenient location for many Blacks.
Black registration in Clay County, Mississippi is limited because registration is only conducted in the county seat, which "is located in the corner of the county. Many people have to go as many as 30 miles in order to register. As a result, those who do not own cars do not bother to register, also it is rather expensive for those who own cars to make very many trips to town to get people registered."
3. The states and counties rarely take action to publicize the need for registration or assume the burden of assuring that residents are registered.
When Jasper County, Mississippi required all voters to reregister it gave no notice of this requirement over the radio, and newspaper publicity, according to the Department of Justice, was inadequate and misleading.
4. Many Blacks, especially in rural areas, are still afraid to register, often this fear is reasonable, seldom is it counteracted.
In southwest Georgia "people are still afraid to register—and with good reason—for fear of economic sanctions or physical sanctions that may
be applied against them if they do." The Blacks least likely to have registered are "the people who work in plants and are maids, the day laborers and unskilled workers: in short, those who are the most vulnerable to economic pressures if they register."
5. In some jurisdictions public officials have interfered with voter registration drives: in others, private persons have done so.
The Circuit Clerk in Hymphreys County, Mississippi was completely uncooperative during a voter registration campaign. On one Monday registration workers arrived at his office at 2 p.m., to be told that he had gone to a funeral and would not be back. On Tuesday they came back with other applicants at 9 a.m. "They were told Mr. Hood (the clerk) was busy. At 9:30 he was allegedly on the phone. At 10:00 he left and said he had to go to a supervisory meeting." On Wednesday the workers arrived at 4:15 p.m. "Mr. Hood met them at the door, saying the office was closed." On Friday they arrived at 1 p.m. they were told that the clerk had gone to his lawyer's office. The local telephone company refused to install a telephone for the voter registration campaign conducted by a Black organization in Calhoun County, Arkansas until a complaint was filed with the state Public Service Commission.
The local bank gave the organization "considerable runaround" concerning the opening of an account.
6. In some jurisdictions a purge of the registration rolls has placed a heavier burden on Blacks than on whites or has been carried out in a manner which discriminates against Blacks.
Blacks in Hale County, Alabama wanted a purge of the registration rolls because 136 percent of the white population was registered compared to 68 percent of the Black. Ninety percent of the four thousand persons purged in the two-thirds Black county, however, were Black."
There can be no doubt that simple justice requires that the 1965 Voting Rights Act be extended for another five years at a minimum, and enforced more vigorously in the future than it has been in the past.
But a quick review [
of] shows that the process that bought the act the to fruition, the agitation that upset a nation and forced a reluctant president, Lyndon Johnson, to go before the Congress could not be ignited again.
For one, we have lost our standard bearer, the single Black figure who could inspire us to acts of individual and mass courage.
more] as importantly, we seem to have lost our will toward action, toward movement, toward the kind of dedication that
typified the sixties, that made a reluctant Congress move.
For as we have reaped the benefits of the social activism of the '60s, too many of us have fallen into the sleep of the '70s, lulled into calm by a large number of Black faces in high places.
We have used the local political process to improve ourselves, and at the same time, lately have become the victims of the process on a national level.
There ought to be no denying, however, that the ancient art of politics ought to have first priority for the poverty stricken in the 70s.
That is because it is politics which decides—in the end—what kinds of lives, if any—our children will have, what kind of world we will live in, and what our futures will be.
It was politics that sent some of our sons to Southeast Asia, to shoot and kill and be killed by other mother's sons they'd never seen: it was politics that brought some back home.
Politics has wounded some more here than there, making them first in war, last in peace, and seldom in the hearts of their countrymen.
Politics has decreed that unemployment for Black people will be 2 and 3 times the national average, and politics has decided we'll live in a permanent depression; conversely, it is politics which can guarantee jobs and income for us now.
The political process—at its best—represents a great debate over philosophical principles and definitions of government's role in dissolving conflicts between economic and racial interest groups: at its worst it is tweedledum versus tweedledee, or plays for power between competing political parties.
The higher debate is seldom clearly heard: it is more often obscured by personality—or lack of it: appeals to patriotism, scare tactics or ordinary obfuscation of the issues.
The clever observer and student can see through this haze, can see groups forming and falling apart. Such a student probably now sees that the last great contest in this nation was not Republicans against Democrats or Nixon versus McGovern.
It was instead a victory for a mighty coalition of the comfortable, the callous and the smug, who closed their ranks, their minds and their hearts against the claims and calls to conscience put forward by the forgotten and unrepresented elements in American society.
This, then, was total triumph for the national nullification of the needs of the needy, the gratuitous gratification of the gross and the greedy, or supreme shinishness and satisfied selfishness.
It climaxed four years of abject surrender in the war on poverty, of a diminuation of civil liberties, of threats to civil rights.
It promised four more years of five o'clock shadow and half past promises, of broken dreams and busted hopes.
But suddenly the golden ring came round again.
Those who wanted four more years now hope for two off with good behavior. Those who publically opposed crime in the streets were caught privately practicing crime in the suites.
The revolt against the new Reconstruction, the radical reformation of relationships between the governed and the governors began in the late sixties.
Nearly a decade of agitation and demonstrations preceded the revolt,
and but the frenetic activity of the sixties created a political movement characterized by selfishness and fear. Backlash does not adequately describe a population frightened by long hair or terrified by clenched fists: but this massive manipulation of the American mind did make the mundane magnificent, and put government in the hands of men and women who believe in privilege for the powerful and neglect of the powerless.
As the middle of the 60s rolled by, the situation of Black people became static and the following trends began to emerge:
—Many of the former fervent supporters of what used
tol to be called the civil rights movement began to be diverted by
other, less traumatic concerns. For many, picking up beer cans by the side of the highway became an acceptable substitute to winning jobs for Black people in the brewery. For others, the loveable and peaceful non-violent marchers of the first part of the decade were replaced—if not in fact, then certainly in the public fancy—by the rapacious rioters of the end of the decade.
Private attention turned away from the public problems of Black and brown poor people.
The cruel and callous castrators in Washington moved with cold calculation to kill and condense urban renewal, model cities, community action, public service employment, student loans, public housing, personal impact funds for education, and to impose a 60% national pull back in social services.
Human problems are now placed on a balance sheet and forced to add up: to pay for themselves. The new administrators in Washington run the programs they direct with all the solicitude of a hungry mortician at an old folks home.
While the nation waltzed into the 70s believing that its Black problem had been blown or burned away:
—Infant mortality rates for
f us remained twice as high as for everyone else:
—Nearly half of all Black families in the United States earned less than $5,000.00 a year;
—The average Black American was dying seven years earlier than his white counterpart;
—We remained the last to be hired and the first to be fired.
While American liberalism was brought into a state of dissaray by its failure to mount successful and sustained campaigns against the continuing war in Southeast Asia, and while the college youth who formerly marched militantly in the streets were discovered running naked through the college grounds—attempting to prove perhaps that all men are not created equal—some weaknesses in our own ranks appeared.
Many of our young people who were bouyed in the '60s by the beauty in Blackness now seem bowled over by the bougaloo, bid-whist and Boone's Farm. Many apparently believe their politics can be expressed by the length of their hair or the complexity of their handshakes.
Our community—which has always had its share of charlatans and knaves, now seems overflowing with political pimps of all kinds. They endorse candidates not because they're good but because they'll win: they respect no party or principle, but owe allegiance only to themselves: you cannot engage them in a battle of wits for they are all unarmed men.
Throughout this depression of mind and soul that has afflicted Black America, the political process, its successes and failures, has held the attention of an increasing number
of Black men and women.
You We all know of the Tom Bradleys and Maynard Jacksons and Coleman Youngs. You know of Barbara Jordan and Shirley Chisholm. But did you know:
—that the number of Black elected officials in the 11 Southern states has increased by 2000% since 1964?
—that Black people are registered to vote in proportionately larger numbers in Selma, Alabama, than they are in Chicago and New York?
—that Black women and men in the Southern region have a faith in the political process that reflects neither the naivete of the political [
voice] novice nor the cynicism of the jaundiced veteran?
They are men and women who reject the notion that all politicians are hacks and fools: they believe that politics must mean people and their problems, and not just candidates and elections.
—They know they face a hard period ahead where help from elsewhere will not come forth as swiftly as it once did.
Unlike their counterparts in the East and West, they have developed a staying power that follows a continuous line from the middle 1950s to the present; through sit-ins and freedom rides to voter marches, today's Southern Black politics is an unbroken continuum; the political process is the natural end product for a people who see struggle as a continual—and not an occasional process.
As this region of the country produced America's moral leadership, in earlier decades, it continues to produce the political model for today.
Several themes dominate the thinking of political activists in the Southern region today.
Foremost Minimal among them is the retention and extension of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. This single piece of legislation is responsible for the enfranchisement of millions of Black men and women, the election of 1000s more, the elimination of gerrymandered districts and restrictive voting practices, and most recently, for the granting of political rights and representation to Black people outside of the Southern region. It must be renewed.
If the fight for simple extension of the existing act is successfully waged, there are many and I am among them, who believe that other battles in this arena must be fought as well.
One is for a national Voting
ARights Act, legislation that will give the underregistered Black and brown people of the North and West the same protection enjoyed in this region now.
Another is for a single system of post card registration, administered on the federal level, eliminating the petty obstacles of time and geography which conspire to keep a large portion of the potential American electorate unregistered.
One final need is for the establishment of a national holiday for national elections, or at least, provision for holding such
elections on Sunday, when the smallest portion of Americans are at work.
Only when these steps are taken can we believe that every citizen has free and equal access to the franchise, and to the opportunity to pick and choose among the candidates who wish to govern us.
In national affairs, Southern Black politicians are developing the regional muscle to deliver white votes in the United States House and Senate. In creating home rule for the District of Columbia and in constructing a constituency for repeal of the Byrd Amendment, it was the loosely organized network of small town mayors and rural county commissioners that insisted to their representatives in Congress that they cannot support racism in Rhodesia and enjoy Black support at home.
On the local level, these women and men have restored confidence in elected officials and have made their governments become the delivery systems for goods and services they ought to be.
They pave streets and pick up garbage; they make Johnny-Be-Good be good; they make office holding the high calling it is supposed to be.
They refuse to be diverted by the romantic rhetoricians and second-hand victims of oppression. They insist on service, the demand that democracy now be made safe for them.
I think the people of this region know that today is not like yesterday, and know that we are in a difficult period, a period in which there are no student caravans South, in which there are no visiting, sympathetic congressmen, a period in which no entertainers will dance and sing for them in small back country churches.
I said, earlier in my remarks, that some people like to think of this problem as "The Black Problem." There are also those other Americans who come from groups of European immigrants—unlike us, voluntary immigrants, to be sure—who believe that since they have risen to influence and affluence, then Black people can easily do the same. And there are some who profess sympathy and understanding but ask "What can I do?" Frederick Douglass, in his 77th year, answered all of these questions: He said "The marvel is that the old trick of misnaming things, so often displayed by Southern politicians, should have worked so well for the bad cause for which it is now employed, for the American people have fallen in with the bad idea that this is a Negro problem, a question of the character of the Negro, and not a question of the nation.... He has as little to do with the cause of the problem as he has to do with its cure. Now what the real problem is we all ought to know. It is not a Negro problem, but a national problem. It involves the question of whether after all our boasted civilization, our Declaration of Independence, our
Constitution, our sublime Christianity, our statesmanship, we as a people, possess virtue enough to solve this problem.
"But how can the problem be solved? Let the white people of the North and South conquer their prejudices. Let the American people cultivate kindness and humanity. Let them give up the idea that they can be free while making the Negro a slave. They are not required to do much. They are only required to undo the evil that they have done, in order to solve this problem.
"Put away your race prejudice. Banish the idea that one class must rule over another. Recognize the facts that the rights of the humblest of citizens are as worthy of protection as are those of the highest and your problem will be solved, and whatever may be in store for you in the future, whether prosperity or adversity, whether you have foes without or foes within, whether there shall be peace or war, based on the eternal principles of truth, justice and humanity, with no class having cause for complaint or grievance, your republic will stand and flourish forever...."*
*Frederick Douglass, The Lessons of the Hour, pamphlet, 1894. (The author has selected and edited the passages which appear here.)
Papers of Julian Bond 1897-2006