Let us do what one of our senior citizens said years ago—in the face of strong voter suppression executed by hostile FBI agents and a lawless U.S. Attorney. She said, “They can’t scare me.” “I’ll vote on.” In the brave tradition of so many African Americans who put their lives on the line to bring us the franchise, this grandmother was all in. And this was in the 1980s, not the 1950s and 1960s.
After the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, African Americans in Alabama’s black belt began to vote and express desires to have more influence in their local governments. And of course, this was met with strong resistance—resistance just short of what had been happening before 1965.
The major problem for local whites was that if blacks voted, they would run several of these black belt counties because they outnumbered whites in the area.
A word here about the Black Belt: Black Belt is the name given to a stretch of land with dark, fertile soil stretching about 300 miles long and 25 to 30 miles wide through central Alabama and northeast Mississippi.
This land was discovered to be one of the best areas in the world to grow cotton. This fact led to the “Indian” Trail of Tears moving Native Americans out of the region and the slavery Trail of Tears moving slaves into the area, leading it to be called Black Belt for the soil and also the large number of black slaves and then freedman.
So many slaves were moved into the region that after slavery ended, there were more blacks than whites residing there. This resulted in a very oppressive segregation system, which prohibited or limited the black vote, among other unjust acts. Then came the Voting Rights Act, black voting–and efforts to restrict the franchise.
In 1985, when he was U.S. Attorney in Mobile, Jeff Sessions indicted black civic leaders on charges of voter fraud in several Black Belt counties, including Albert Turner, a long-time civil rights activist who advised Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and helped lead the voting rights March in Selma in 1965. Sessions and his fellow prosecutors alleged that Turner, his wife Evelyn, and activist Spencer Hogue altered ballots for a September 1984 primary election.
Sessions charged Turner and others due to their assistance to elderly African Americans who could not get to the polls on their own and needed help with the mechanics of using the absentee ballots, as many were illiterate. These elderly citizens were harassed by being interviewed by the FBI late at night, accused of wrongdoing, and hauled by buses over 100 miles to Mobile to be fingerprinted like criminals, presumably to frighten them into not bothering to vote in the future.
All defendants were eventually found innocent of the bogus charges, but not before local terrorists bombed or burned several black homes. The game plan was to frighten the citizens against voting.
To publicize the outrageous activities in Alabama, which were led by then U.S. Senator Jerimiah Denton and U.S. Attorney Jeff Sessions, a small group of us brought three of the Black Belt leaders to Boston to be interviewed by the media and to speak at colleges and universities. Later we sponsored buses for students and others to travel to Alabama to assist the elderly voters, to act as poll watchers, and to provide moral support to black citizens as they voted. Twenty years later, we found ourselves doing some of the same work that the Freedom Summer students had done in the 1960s.
Some of these besieged elderly unschooled black citizens explained the situation in interviews.
Interviewer: Why do you think they did this?
Respondent: They called themselves trying to scare me or something.
Interviewer: Did they scare you?
Respondent: They didn’t scare me. I wasn’t scared.
Interviewer: Why not?
Respondent: I was too glad to vote.
Another respondent: Yes, I voted.
Interviewer: What will you do now.
Respondent: I’ll vote on.
Let us follow these brave souls and “vote on.”