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New Barriers to Voting and the Legacy of the Foot Soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement

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Marlaina Martin is an intern in the Community Engagement & Education department at POV. She will begin a doctoral degree program this Fall at Rutgers University in Critical Interventions in Theory and Ethnography with a focus in Media Anthropology.

The right to vote was a central issue in the Civil Rights Movement. To African-Americans, to vote was to be considered an equal citizen in the eyes of the law.

Amelia Boynton Robinson, the civil rights foot soldier featured in The Barber of Birmingam who is now 101, said, “The system in the South was, you keep black people where you can use them. If they vote, they will vote us out so consequently we are not going to give them the opportunity to register and vote.”

On March 7, 1965, now infamously known as “Bloody Sunday,” more than 600 protestors, both black and white, marched over the Edmund Pettus Bridge outside of Selma, Alabama, demanding their right to vote only to be met by police armed with billy clubs and tear gas. One week later, President Johnson made a speech decrying the violence. By August 6th, he’d signed into law the Voting Rights Act.

Photo still from The Barber of Birmingham

The act supported minority voters by providing bilingual assistance at the polls and outlawing restrictive voting measures such as poll taxes, literacy tests, racial discrimination and voter intimidation. In the next presidential election, in 1966, the percentage of black voters in the South leapt from 6 percent to 44 percent — about 281,000 in total.

It’s interesting to think about James Armstrong and Amelia Boynton Robinson’s fight today, as we approach the 2012 presidential election. How much has changed? In the end, the Voting Rights Act wasn’t the definitive solution to voter discrimination — amendments have since been made that threaten minority voters’ rights. Last month, NAACP Board Chair Roslyn Brock said, “Our right to vote is under attack more than any other time in history since we passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965… We overcame then and we shall overcome now — but only if we are willing to dedicate ourselves to fighting a battle that many of us thought we had won many years ago.”

James Armstrong after he voted in the 2008 election

In the wake of Florida’s controversial 2000 election recounts, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act with the goal of making voting operations efficient and reliable. But stricter identification requirements created new potential for intimidation, and the elections of 2004 and 2008 saw harassment at voting centers reminiscent of a time even before the Voting Rights Act.

New legislation — with stringent proof-of-citizenship, photo and ID rules — has created additional barriers to voting that disproportionately affect minorities, low-income communities and the elderly. For example, identification laws hurt African Americans who were never issued birth certificates because they were born during a time when de jure segregation prevented equal access to hospitals. Recent laws not only impinge on general voting practices, but also stand to inhibit the participation of almost 6 million people in the 2012 election.

Today, no fewer than 42 voting bills are pending. H.R. 5815, introduced earlier this year, aims to define and enforce criminal punishments for voter misleading or intimidation on the federal level. The law would prosecute cases such as those that have occurred in recent years — people falsely being told that voting was postponed for a day, threats that voting would cost students their scholarships or reports that a particular candidate had won before counts were official. Reclaiming ideals of democracy and equality that inspired the Voting Rights Act, H.R. 5815 speaks to the ways that voting irregularities continues to affect public confidence and participation in national politics.

POV Guest Blogger
POV Guest Blogger
POV (a cinema term for "point of view") is television's longest-running showcase for independent non-fiction films. POV premieres 14-16 of the best, boldest and most innovative programs every year on PBS. Since 1988, POV has presented over 300 films to public television audiences across the country. POV films are known for their intimacy, their unforgettable storytelling and their timeliness, putting a human face on contemporary social issues.