Why ForwardFreedom on the 50th Anniversary of Freedom Summer?

This year and next year mark the 50th Anniversary of events that led to social justice changes in 1964-1965, transforming the American landscape. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed voter discrimination against African-Americans and most of the practices of Jim Crow went by the wayside as American media focused on murders and other violence against American citizens perpetrated by racism, prejudice and fear of those who are different.

Happily, it seems most of the celebrations that are planned to honor those who stood up and spoke the truth of segregation and discrimination are focusing not only on glorifying past victories, but on moving forward to remove the modern day vestiges of racism and inequality. While we cannot deny, as John Lewis said, “things are much better in America,” there is still work to be done.

Unfortunately, racism is still deeply embedded in the American psyche.  The scars of slavery and Jim Crow have not entirely morphed into a post-racial paradise.  What we have achieved is in some ways like a face lift – things look better, but we are still the same underneath. While a black president has been elected, his platforms are vehemently opposed by some of the same forces that used violence and intimidation in an attempt to curtail the civil rights of minorities 50 years ago. These are mainstream conservatives whose desire is to empower the status quo and deny the shifting moral, social and political realities in America and the world.

In 1963, the Democratic party in the South vehemently opposed integration and the enfranchisement of African-American citizens, which threatened the supremacy of whites and the existing power structure. Fear of change drove many people to violence and, in many cases, this violence was condoned or even committed by the government. The White Citizen’s Council, a Mississippi state funded organization, is a chilling example of how a “democratic” government can be hijacked by special interests who are threatened by the over throw of the status quo.  In the wake of the Voter Rights Act of 1965, which was supported and signed by Lyndon Johnson, a Democratic president, most of the southern states fled the Democratic party and joined the Republican ranks. Today, it seems that some people in the Republican party have taken up the standard of disenfranchisement and ethnic repression that was formerly the purview of the Democratic south.

Today, this repression is more cosmetically appealing than the violence of Jim Crow. Black people can now drink at any fountain, sit at any lunch counter and they do not have to move off the sidewalk to make way for whites. Murder, arson and police armed with fire hoses and billy clubs are no longer the weapons of repression.  This is, indeed, a great improvement.  However, in more subtle ways, voter ID laws and voting restrictions, as well as inequities in the justice, education, health and welfare systems still create a racially divided society. Prejudice lives on in the hearts and minds of many Americans. Indeed, some say it is embedded in the American psyche.

On the surface, it seems reasonable to require voter ID. Only citizens have the right to vote. Shouldn’t we protect this sacred right?  Yes!  Doesn’t every citizen have a government issued picture ID?  Well, no.  The poor, urban dwellers – many of whom are black or Latino – do not. Yet, they are citizens. Restricting voting hours disproportionately affects the working poor and people with disabilities. Long lines at the voting polls, which seem to be disproportionately in poor and racially mixed neighborhoods, also impact the poor, elderly and disabled.  Students are another group that are disenfranchised by these practices since, while a gun permit will serve as voter ID in some states, a student ID card will not.

Voter disenfranchisement and the racism and partisanship that spawn it threaten not only our freedoms and Democracy, but also our very existence on planet Earth. We must learn to transcend political rhetoric and, even, our own prejudices and loyalties to see where the best interests of Democracy reside. Despite real gains in human dignity and social justice, Issues of personal freedom related to government surveillance, food safety and environmental preservation are constantly in the news. The fire of war burns brightly around the globe, fueled – at least partly – by American willingness to devote resources to aggression. Unless an educated, enlightened majority of citizens is enfranchised and also able to access the ballot, our laws and practices will continue to favor the interests of the rich and powerful over the wellbeing of all.

It is up to us, the citizens of a free and democratic land, to stand up for what’s right.  We must protect the rights of all – because we realize that nobody is really free, until we are all free.  Nobody is really safe, until we are all safe.  At the Andrew Goodman Foundation, we have thought long and hard about these issues and we have identified peace, justice and sustainability as three beacons to guide our moral compass.

About the Author: Sylvia Golbin-Goodman is the Executive Director of The Andrew Goodman Foundation and a member of its Board of Trustees. She leads the Foundation’s programming and developed the Hidden Heroes Awards.