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National Commentary

They Fought To Vote – And They Won!

By Rosaland Tyler
Associate Editor
New Journal and Guide

Before you assume your vote will not count in the next election, consider how Alabama Sheriff James Clark Jr. fractured his hand when he slugged civil rights activist C.T. Vivian in the face for trying to register about 40 marchers at the Selma courthouse in February 1965.

As the cliché goes, one thing led to another. The next year, President Lyndon Johnson signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The next year, Clark was defeated in the 1966 election. In the past only about 1 percent of all African-Americans in Selma were eligible to vote. Clark won reelection twice and served as the sheriff of Dallas County, Ala. from 1955 to 1966. This means he won at a time when many African-Americans in Selma were not allowed to vote.

The former sheriff, (who Congressman John Lewis described as “a mean, vicious, sick man),” lost the 1966 election, took assorted jobs including selling mobile homes, and experienced financial hardship. (At some point, he served nine months in prison for conspiring to import marijuana, after his reelection bid failed).

Clark was beaten by Wilson Baker, who had served as county director of public safety for four years. Clark lost the 1966 election “in part because so many African-Americans had registered to vote,” according to Clark’s 2007 obituary in The Washington Post. Baker, the new sheriff was credited with negotiating with civil rights leaders.

Re-elected three times, Baker once said, “I’m not a voting registrar nor the custodian of the courthouse. I’m a police officer with the job of preserving law and order.” According to his 1996 obituary in The New York Times, Baker died in 1996 at age 60 several months after undergoing open-heart surgery.

This means more African-Americans voted for the first time in 1966, which was the year after Clark punched Vivian in the face in front of the Selma courthouse. One thing led to another. And voters of color changed history. Lines of Caucasian and African-American voters stretched at least three city blocks outside of an Alabama polling site in 1966, according to a National Archives newsreel. Wait times were as long as four hours.

As the nation observes Black History Month, the New Journal and Guide will provide individual stories that aim to show the impact that the African-American vote has already had in local, state, and federal elections. This year’s theme for Black History Month is, “African-Americans and the Vote.”

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The series aims to answer two basic questions: Does your vote count? Does voting still make a difference?

The answers surface in a comment the former sheriff, Clark made in The Montgomery Advertiser in a 2006 interview, a year before he died. “Basically, I’d do the same thing today if I had to do it all over again,” said Clark, who died at age 84 in an Alabama nursing home in June 2007 from a stroke and heart condition.

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Vivian, who is now 95, still remembers that punch in the face. He described his violent Feb. 5, 1965 encounter with Clark at the Selma courthouse in a 2013 interview in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. This interview was held a month before Vivian received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in November 2013.

He said he told Clark, “You don’t want them to register because you would no longer be able to use your brutality on them.” Clark turned his back on Vivian, who was quick to use the slight to his advantage.

“You can turn your back on me, but you cannot turn your back on the idea of justice,” Vivian said. “You can turn your back now and you can keep the club in your hand, but you cannot beat down justice.”

Vivian and the marchers were surrounded by deputies and TV news crews capturing the tense moment. A crowd of whites started to heckle Vivian, calling him, of all things, a screwball.

“I’m a screwball for the rights of people to vote and if this is the kind of screwball I am, this is the kind of screwball America needs,” Vivian said. “The kind of screwball that can get rid of Sheriff Clark, who beats people on the streets and keeps people from registering to vote.”

Vivian continued to talk to Clark, who looked as if he were growing angrier and angrier but remained silent.

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So Vivian addressed the deputies.

“We want you to know, gentlemen, that every one of you, we know your badge numbers, we know your names,” Vivian told the deputies, comparing their actions to Nazi Germany.

Clark finally spoke, asking Vivian if he lived in Dallas County. Vivian said no, but he represented county residents who could not vote. Vivian turned and faced the crowd, using a call and response technique. One thing led to another. “Is what I am saying true?” Vivian yelled. “Yeah!” the crowd responded.

Clark finally snapped. He ordered the TV photographers to turn off their cameras.

“If you don’t turn that light out I’m gonna shoot it out,” Clark said.

The deputies started pushing the marchers down the stairs, as Vivian pleaded. Don’t beat them.

Clark then punched Vivian square in the face with a vicious left jab, sending him sprawling down the courthouse steps. Records show it was not the first time Clark had used violence on civil rights protestors.

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According to news reports, about 10 days after Clark slugged Vivian he started a fight with Annie Lee Cooper, a 54-year-old African-American woman who was standing in line in Selma trying to register to vote for the fifth time. One thing led to another. It ended with Clark’s deputies holding her down while he beat her with a Billy club.

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However, Clark hit her with the Billy club after he had poked her in the back of the neck with his cattle prod. The woman turned and punched Clark in the face. Deputies dragged her to the ground as Clark savagely beat her with the prod. The local Selma paper ran a front-page photo – carried nationally – of Clark beating Cooper on the sidewalk outside of the courthouse as she tried to register to vote.

In the movie, “Selma,” Oprah Winfrey plays the role of Annie Lee Cooper who spent 11 hours in jail for assault, and attempted murder. She was released, and registered to vote.

Winfrey said in a 2014 interview, “The reason I said yes to this role is because of the magnificence of Annie Lee Cooper. And what her courage meant to an entire movement. Having people look at you and not see you as a human being – she just got tired of it. You cannot know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve been.”

While Cooper was in jail, King said in a speech he delivered at Brown Chapel Church. “This is what happened today. Mrs. Cooper was down in that line, and they haven’t told the press the truth about it. Mrs. Cooper wouldn’t have turned around and hit Sheriff Clark just to be hitting. And of course, as you know, we teach a philosophy of not retaliating and not hitting back, but the truth of the situation is that Mrs. Cooper, if she did anything, was provoked by Sheriff Clark. At that moment, he was engaging in some very ugly business-as-usual action. This is what brought about that scene there.” 

In other words, one thing led to another. First, Cooper registered to vote. She was 100 when she died in 2010. Second, Clark lost the election the year Cooper finally voted for the first time. Third, about four years after Cooper died, the movie, “Selma” earned four 2014 Golden Globe nominations including a best director nod for Ava DuVernay, making her the first African-American woman ever nominated in the category.

“Annie Lee Cooper was a woman who attempted to register to vote five times,” Selma director Ava DuVernay said in a 2014 NPR  interview. “She represents, you know, hundreds of people at that time that were attempting to vote, that were brave enough to withstand threats to their lives, to their livelihoods by walking into those places. So that is very poignant to me.”

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The point is today many voters of color dread facing long lines, strict ID requirements, broken voting machines, voter intimidation, or potential violence at a voting site. To increase the sense of dread, fewer Department of Justice observers were sent to monitor 2016 elections in key states inside polling stations to make sure all procedures were followed, The Washington Post reported in 2016.

“In the 2012 presidential election … the Justice Department sent more than 780 observers and other personnel to polling places in 51 jurisdictions in 23 states to watch for unlawful activity and write up reports about possible civil rights violations.  . .Justice Department officials say this year (2016) they are sending observers to fewer than five states – and to those locations only because the oversight has been ordered by judges in specific cases.”

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However, according to the book, “What a Colored Man Should Do to Vote,” worse obstacles existed before the 1965 Voting Rights Act became law.

Although two laws gave African-Americans and women the right to vote: The 15th Amendment in 1870 gave African-Americans the right to vote,  And women gained the right to vote in 1920, when the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was passed.

Although two specific laws gave people of color and women the right to vote, laws and customs prevented many African-Americans from voting until the passage of the 1965 Civil Rights Act. And this is where the pamphlet titled, “What a Colored Man Should Do to Vote” comes in.

Located in the Library of Congress, it was published in the early 1900s by the Press of E. A. Wright of Philadelphia.

Remember the pamphlet was published at a time when laws and customs prevented many African-Americans from voting.

Most of the tips are aimed at people of color who live in southern states. The pamphlet lists voting requirements state by state. For example, it says many southern states required one to two years of residency. Almost any type of criminal record could disqualify you from voting. Poll taxes and literacy were mandatory, aimed to limit the number of African-American voters.

According to the 1986 book, “The Literacy Test for Immigrants” by Robert F. Zeidel, if an official wanted a person to pass, he could ask the easiest question on the test – for example, ‘Who is the president of the United States?’ The same official might require an African-American  to answer every single question correctly, in an unrealistic amount of time, in order to pass.

It was up to the test administrator whether the prospective voter passed or failed, and even if an African-American was well educated, he would most likely fail, because “the test was created with failure as a goal.” Even if a potential African-American voter knew all the answers to the questions, the official administering the test could still fail him.

Obstacles to voting have existed for some time. Perhaps this is why toward the end of the book, “What a Colored Man Should Do to Vote,” it offers this tip: “It is especially urged that as voters you should seek to be on friendly terms with your white neighbors in the communities in which you live, so that you consult with them about your common interests; and that you should ally yourselves with the best people in your community for the good.”

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