SELMA, Ala.—Macye Chatman was a wide-eyed, Tennessee-bred, 19-year-old Tuskegee student in 1965 who turned civil-rights activist after seeing the level of racism and segregation practiced in the Deep South.
"If you rode the bus back then, you'd have to go to back of the bus. My roommates from Mississippi told me you couldn't even go in some stores and buy clothes. Clothes! You wouldn't be riding with white people in the car. They would be following you, and you might be killed," she said.
Forget about casting a ballot to change things. "I felt it was wrong that black people couldn't vote," she said.
So Chatman joined the movement in Montgomery, stood with Martin Luther Jr., and demonstrated at the state Capitol at the same time the historic Selma-to-Montgomery march was getting underway 50 years ago. She spent her 20th birthday in jail. "I got arrested in front of the state Capitol. They didn't want me there. We were staying, and we locked arms and sat down in an Indian-style protest. State troopers were all around us. The horses were circling. We stayed two-and-a-half days in jail, 12 to 20 in a cell. You slept on the floor. I never was charged with anything."
When she got out, she knew that thousands of marchers were making their way toward Montgomery from Selma, and she was going to be there to meet them.
Chatman, now 70 and living in Jackson, Tenn., was one of tens of thousands who came back to Selma this month to commemorate the Selma-to-Montgomery marches of 1965 that led to the historic Voting Rights Act of that year, including "Bloody Sunday" on March 7, 1965, when state troopers and local law enforcement authorities brutally beat and tear-gassed 600 peaceful protesters on Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. Many who were there, including Chatman, pointed to backtracking on voting rights, economic inequality and continuing racist behavior of police officers.
"Today we are right back to where we were in 1965," she said. "We are making so many steps backward. They're trying to repeal the Voting Rights Act. They're trying to repeal women's rights, the right to protect her body. What about racial profiling?"
Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court's 2013 Shelby County vs. Holder decision essentially lifted federal pre-approval requirements for voting changes in places where blacks historically faced discrimination. Dozens of states, including Mississippi, implemented new restrictions on voting in response.
Modern-day Republicans, the spawn of erstwhile arch-segregationist Strom Thurmond's 1964 campaign to change the one-party Democratic South to a one-party Republican South, pushed tough laws on voter ID and when and where people can vote. The target: Democrat-voting minorities.
The ruse Republicans use to defend voter restrictions is the claim of voter fraud. "Where there has been election fraud in American elections, it is usually committed by politicians," says Lorraine C. Minnite, director of urban studies at Rutgers University.
"The most important illustration of outright corruption of elections is the century-long success of white supremacists in the American South stripping African-Americans of their right to vote."
I traveled to Selma, Ala., in 1992 to report on the role of the black voter in elections that year. Selma's late civil rights activist and attorney J. L. Chestnut Jr., a much-revered veteran of "Bloody Sunday," talked to me at length about race in America.
"There is no way to escape white racism in America. America is racially insane. It affects politics and everything else. I can't spend a lot of time worrying about how far we've come. I got to worry about how far we got to go. We've come a long way and probably got twice (as far) to go."
Chestnut talked about "Bloody Sunday" on Edmund Pettus Bridge, a bridge named after a Confederate general and alleged Klu Klux Klan leader.
"I remember March 7, 1965, here in Selma when we came face to face on Edmund Pettus Bridge with the awesome might of the Alabama government," he said. "I remember John Lewis bleeding like a stuck hog."
Yet Chestnut came out of that experience with hope. "I remember whites coming to Selma and risking their lives. A nation that will do that is not all bad. ... I believe if you give Americans the truth, they will do their damndest to be fair."
Still, giving Americans the truth is a tall order, Chestnut admitted, when the goal of so many politicians is just the opposite.
Joe Atkins is a veteran journalist and professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi. His blog is laborsouth.blogspot.com, and he can be reached at [email protected].