Yesterday I drove from Montgomery to Selma, Alabama the same route taken by men, women, and children who were protesting for the right to vote in 1965.
The Edmund Pettus bridge was the most pivotal point of all three of the 1965 marches: the first ended in police violence so extreme that day is now referred to as “Bloody Sunday”. The second march also ended abruptly at the bridge because the police – once again – threatened violence. By the third march, LBJ offered support via the National Guard, who were waiting on the far side of the bridge. The marchers walked fifty miles in four days, stopping at campsites along the way. By the time they reached the State Capitol Building in Montgomery, they were 25,000 strong!
Though Martin Luther King, Jr, who led the second and third march, was not allowed on the steps or inside of the Capitol Building, the point was made; people wanted and deserved the right to vote, a right that had initially been granted in 1870, through the passage of the 15th Amendment.
Two protesters were murdered. Many more were beaten. And this country is still trying to instill bogus restrictions on voting rights.
This summer, while working at Race and Revolution on Governors Island, when the upcoming election was hot on everyone’s mind, three men came to visit the exhibition. Another man was in the space exploring on his own. At some point the four men began talking to each other, and the subject of voters’ rights came up. One of the men had strong memories of how terrified and intimidated African American people were by the act of registering to vote and then voting. As I listened to these men share memories and experiences, I reflected on how I have approached the privilege of voting. I had been negligent in the past not considering how so many people had fought and died for the right to vote and why having the right to vote was so terrifying to those who hold power, and, therefore, so important to respect.
The Election of 2016 has been contentious, to say the least. But what, to me, was the most upsetting is how many people thought that withholding their vote was an act of rebellion against the candidates and the Government. How is it rebellious to not have a voice – or to take away your own voice?