In his State of the Union address when President Barack Obama paid tribute to Desiline Victor, the 102-year-old African-American woman from North Miami who was forced to wait for hours to cast her ballot last November, he was highlighting not only the Florida Republican Party's voter suppression efforts but the tortured history of race relations in America. February is "Black History Month" and the nation's first black president offered yet another a "teachable moment."
This year marks the 50th anniversary of some key events of the civil rights movement where thousands of activists often risked their lives to end Jim Crow racial segregation in the South and bring the United States into the 20th Century. In a six-month period in 1963 the nation experienced the demonstrations in Birmingham, Ala. (and "Bull" Connor's repressive tactics); Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail"; President John F. Kennedy's decision to send a civil rights bill to Congress; the integration of the University of Alabama (requiring federal authorities to remove Governor George Wallace from the "schoolhouse door"); the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where Dr. King delivered his iconic speech; and the bombing just over two weeks later of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.
When I saw Desiline Victor sitting in the first lady's box I thought of Jo Ann Robinson, Rosa Parks, and other African-American women in Montgomery, Ala. who organized the Women's Political Council and later formed the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). I thought about the bus boycott and the week-long Institute on Nonviolence and Social Change sponsored by the MIA in December 1956 where Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth of Birmingham learned about the efficacy of nonviolent civil disobedience. I thought about the southern black women who were the heart and soul of Shuttleworth's Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR), which brought the principles of the Montgomery bus boycott to the local struggle in Birmingham.
I also thought about the cross-fertilization of ideas that arose from the direct action and their serendipitous nature; how new nonviolent methods and tactics were improvised to fit local contingencies. (Historians often impose too much order on their narratives portraying this dance between thought and action. The civil rights movement was made up of thousands of ordinary people like Desiline Victor who just wanted to exercise their basic rights of citizenship.)
When I saw Desiline Victor I thought of Ella Baker of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) who early on recognized the potential of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), as a force that could propel the movement forward. I thought of Diane Nash and all of the other brave young people who came forward to show their elders the level of their commitment and the huge cohort of courageous young people willing to go to jail and endure great hardships to bring down Jim Crow.
Too many Americans have little awareness of the past struggles for racial justice in this country and without this knowledge they have little chance to grasp the historic nature of Barack Obama's two-term presidency. Historical illiteracy might go a long way in explaining why there has been so much hostility, obstructionism, and ridicule of this president, not based on overt racism, but on a total lack of awareness of the humiliation black people endured for decades in the Jim Crow South with its attendant beatings, lynchings, bombings, murders, and mutilations.
From 1947 to 1965, there were fifty "unsolved" bombings in Birmingham alone, including the September 15, 1963 bombing that killed four young girls and injured twenty-two others at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Reverend Shuttlesworth was nearly killed when his house was bombed on Christmas Day 1956. In December 1962, his Bethel Church was bombed blowing out its stain glass windows. At the local level, faith, hard work, and courage drove the movement. Each time there was an attack on Shuttlesworth's life he and many of his followers in the ACMHR saw his survival as being the result of divine intervention.
Desiline Victor's travails in trying to vote last November bring to mind Freedom Summer in Mississippi in 1964 when white vigilantes tortured and killed Micky Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney who had volunteered to register black voters. I also thought about the march from Selma to Montgomery and the passage of the Voting Rights Act. It's fitting that Desiline Victor is from Florida. Back in 2000, when voting "irregularities" in that state gave the presidency to George W. Bush there was a mountain of evidence indicating that Governor Jeb Bush and his Secretary of State (and Bush campaign chair) Katherine Harris had suppressed the black vote through phony "felon" lists and other tricks reminiscent of the Jim Crow era. The United States Supreme Court, even with an African-American Associate Justice filling the same seat once held by Thurgood Marshall, failed to look into the prospects of racially discriminatory and politically motivated restrictions on voting. President Obama highlighting Desiline Victor's story about the difficulties she faced trying to vote could go a long way to educate the public about the seriousness of voter suppression and show those clever Republican governors and state officials that they're not going to get away with it.
If the history of the struggle for civil rights in this country, which had voting rights as a central component, is excised from our contemporary discussion in favor of propaganda about "voter fraud" then those who are attempting to rig the democratic process through dirty tricks and chicanery will have won.