Thanks to the brave protesters at Bloody Sunday and across the South, in 1965 Congress passed the Voting Rights Act. I left my hometown in Illinois to spend the summer in Alabama doing voter registration with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). We went to rallies and mass meetings in churches; got arrested at demonstrations; and went door-to-door in both rural and urban areas to register people to vote. When White people saw us in groups of Black and White volunteers together, the response was anger, hate calls, and guns pulled on us. Sometimes when Black people saw us the response was fear. They faced immense retaliation for registering to vote – if your landlord saw you, you might get evicted. If your banker saw you, you might lose your loan. During the 8 weeks that I was in Alabama, 33 Black churches across the state were burned to the ground.
At the end of the summer, I left Alabama, acutely aware that I could walk away from this violence in a way that the Black families I had stayed with and been supported by could not. The biggest lesson I learned, that continues to shape my life, is that “I’m not free if you’re not free.” In 1965, people across the country were still getting used to having televisions in their homes and nightly news. Every night there was coverage of the bravery of Southern Black communities in the face of White supremacist violence. And across the country, Americans responded with outspoken outrage.
The foundation of a democracy is the ability to exercise your right to vote. This freedom is not something we can take lightly. So much of the progress we have fought for has been stripped away in state after state, through voter suppression laws and practices.. There’s a lot of work left to do in the fight to make sure that everyone can actively participate in the decision-making processes that impact their lives. As I learned all those years ago, it goes a lot deeper than making an x on a ballot.