Sometimes things that seem big and difficult, with the passage of time, become small and self-evident. Things that seem murky and uncertain, in time, become clear and compelling.
Thus it is with buses and votes; they are really black and white – on several levels.
Now this is not just my poor imitation of Lewis Carroll and the illusive truths of Alice and Wonderland but a reflection on the story of the Freedom Riders of the civil rights era and voting rights issues of today.
Let me explain. This week in Anniston, Alabama there was the fifty-first anniversary celebration and ground breaking for the Freedom Riders Park to commemorate this important chapter in our nation’s history. It was in Anniston that a Greyhound bus was attacked and firebombed by a white mob and the riders beaten as they escaped the burning bus. The riders were simply asserting their rights to ride a bus across the South, free from the Jim Crow restrictions of special seating and white-only waiting rooms.
The picture of the burning bus with its black billowing smoke was flashed across the country and around the world and it became one of the iconic images of the whole civil rights movement.
Full disclosure: My family was living in Anniston at the time and as a result of this incident, my father, a Presbyterian minister, became deeply involved with the civil rights movement as the head of Anniston’s bi-racial commission, the first such group of its kind in the South. The group’s work earned them the praise of President Kennedy and my father the top spot on the Ku Klux Klan’s hit list.
So back to my original musing. With the passage of time, it now seems absurd that people would be beaten and maimed for the simple act of riding on a bus. And today the same people who risked their lives in Anniston and other places across the South are now honored in the same city halls where their actions were once condemned by politicians and where many were sentenced to jail.
Today, the moral clarity of what the Freedom Riders did is compelling and inspiring – and their free exercising of their rights is unquestioned in Anniston and throughout the South.
Now, consider the issues today of voter ID, voter suppression and early voting.
Today we have lawmakers who contrive arcane rules that inhibit literally millions of people from voting – largely the poor, elderly and blacks and mostly in the South. All across the South, legions of mostly white Republicans lawmakers and election officials have developed elaborate schemes to purge voters from the roles, make registration more difficult and restrict the time and process of absentee and early voting.
In South Carolina, the principle tactic of disenfranchisement is done under the guise of ‘voter ID’ – despite the fact that the State Election Commission says that there hasn’t been a single documented case of voter fraud that this law supposedly remedies.
Not one case, not one.
Don’t take my word for it, call the SC Election Commission and ask them (803) 734-9070.
And again we hear a whole new set of buzz words and coded language. Where once it was ‘states rights’ and ‘federal government interference’ it’s now all about ‘ballot security’ and ‘voter fraud’. Where once in the ‘solid South’ it was all Democrats making these charges for their own crass political gains, it’s now Republicans with the same motives.
What has remained the same is that it’s largely whites making the rules and largely blacks being harmed.
Thorough out our country’s long history, there has always been a battle between democracy and hypocrisy. On the one hand we are justly proud of our nation’s high ideals – ‘all men are created equal… government of, by and for the people.’ This is what makes us so very special and so justly proud as a county and a people.
But, it has also been a long and hard fought battle to make these ideals apply to everyone – first white men without property, then women, blacks, immigrants, gays, etc.
Fifty years from now, what will our children and grandchildren say of us? To them, will voter ID look like segregation on buses? Will restrictions on same sex marriage look like white only water fountains? Will ‘pathway to citizenship’ look like a Jim Crow law?
My guess is they will.