50 Years Since Selma: Judith Browne Dianis on the Right to Vote and Changes in Civil Rights Organizing

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Bloody Sunday

Fifty years ago on Saturday, a group of marchers advocating for voting rights crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, and were attacked and beaten by Alabama state troopers and local police, abetted and cheered on by some of the community’s white citizenry. The horror of that “Bloody Sunday” moved the nation to enact the Voting Rights Act of 1965, passed by Congress five months later.

History doesn’t progress along a straight upward trajectory. Although John Lewis was among the leaders of the march across the bridge in 1965 and now sits in Congress representing Georgia’s fifth congressional district—something that might not have ever happened had it not been for the courage he and others displayed that day—voting rights and other rights for people of color are still under attack by governmental bodies, particularly at the state level, and private groups. The battle for civil rights is not over by any stretch of the imagination. American society is hardly “post-racial” when it comes to equal rights and equal protection under the law.

That’s where organizations like the Advancement Project, led by Judith Browne Dianis, come in. Dianis is co-director of the Advancement Project with Penda Hair, both of them having come to the Project in 1999 after working with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. Today, Dianis and her colleagues are still fighting for voting rights, trying, as she put it, “to make the right to vote as sacred as the right to free speech”—core to our democracy, inalienable, impregnable, and protected against the malevolent actions of some state governments and local government registrars who think they can circumscribe voting rights for any number of reasons. To Dianis, the fiftieth anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma should be “the moment to recommit” to the voting rights movement and make the changes in our society necessary to ensure those rights.

“I see Selma as a moment to rebuild a voting rights movement that demands that voting is accessible to all Americans, that we won’t allow these kinds of voter suppression tactics,” she said. “We need Americans to feel that the right to vote is sacred, that Americans will fight for their right to participate in our democracy because people died for that right.”

That isn’t hyperbole, or a reference to the entire history of civil rights in the South. People died in the voting rights protests in Alabama, including Jimmie Lee Jackson, who was killed by a state trooper a couple of weeks before the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and Rev. James Reeb, who was beaten to death by club-wielding white men a couple of days later.

Dianis spoke to the Cohen Report in the days before the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday to reflect on the meaning and significance of the event. A number of Advancement Project staff, including General Counsel and Managing Director Edward Hailes as well as Penda Hair, will be in Alabama to, as Dianis said, commemorate both what happened on that fateful day and also “the work of those who came before us whose shoulders we stand on.” It’s important to observe that what has been accomplished leading up to today derives in part from leaders who put their bodies and lives on the line in Selma, such as Lewis, who had been chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), an integral part of the voting rights organizing in Selma, and Rev. Hosea Williams of the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC), with whom Lewis actually led the march across the bridge.

It’s not just history that brings the Advancement Project to Selma. Dianis said that part of the message she and others are raising is to “reinforce the need of folks to participate in the voting rights movement of today…to engage people in the current civil rights challenges.” One would hope against hope that five decades after the Voting Rights Act, this nation wouldn’t still have to fight for basic voting rights that all Americans should be able to exercise, but sadly, that is not the case.

“It is worrisome that we are still fighting to secure the right to vote for all Americans,” Dianis said. “We’ve seen significant rollbacks on voting rights for African Americans and communities of color.”

“State laws are being used to build barriers to the ballot box,” she observed, “barriers against people who would have more political power than they would have in the past” due to the changing demographics of the U.S. Consider voter identification laws, which Dianis describes as “like a poll tax.” Although the IDs themselves might be free, the underlying documents are not and must be paid for, which “for people living paycheck to paycheck” is not easy to overcome. “The modern day barriers are different,” Dianis said, but still stand in the way of the “struggle for all people to be able to participate in our democracy.”

It isn’t just in the Deep South, either; Dianis cited examples where the Advancement Project has been on the “front lines” of fighting overly restrictive voter ID laws, in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Ohio, for example, in addition to former “Jim Crow” states that were the original major targets for federal review under the Voting Rights Act.

“Because of the Jim Crow laws that existed in the South, the voting rights issues became grounded in the South,” Dianis noted, but “in many ways, there is a larger recognition that it’s not just the South” that has created barriers to voting rights for people of color. Government agencies, political parties, and outside groups “have used tactics to intimidate voters, to get them to think twice about casting their ballot.”

As an example, Dianis cited the practice of “voter caging,” wherein a political party will send non-forwardable first-class letters to voters, particularly in areas with a likelihood or preponderance of people of color. In the cases where mail is returned as undeliverable, the political party in question—such as, in a case we were familiar with, the Republican Party in Ohio—will assign poll watchers to challenge the voting rights of voters who show up at the polls. Voter caging has been seen in several Northern and Midwestern states, not just the Deep South, which demonstrates Dianis’s contention that protecting the voting rights of persons of color is a national issue, not merely a Southern one.

These practices, voter caging and others, are carried out under the cover of state and local law or by partisan political interests. “It’s harder” to police them, Dianis said, “because there are more actors and because it’s more (geographically) dispersed. You don’t know when and where these things are going to pop up.”

That’s the importance of both the nonprofit sector and social media, Dianis added. When dealing with occurrences like the billboards erected in Wisconsin and Ohio during elections, meant to intimidate minority voters, people with the ability to take pictures from their cell phones, she said, can post visual evidence on social media so that the public gets to know in real-time what is happening with these voter suppression tactics. Dianis didn’t note this, but Bloody Sunday itself was televised in that pre-social media time, exposing to the American public the viciousness of the state police and local posses against the peaceful marchers who reached the Selma side of the bridge. Social media makes all of us potential reporters about injustices, whether voter suppression billboards or, as in Ferguson, Missouri, actions conducted by government officials like the police.

Calling herself a “Twitter fiend,” Dianis described social media as the town square for political organizing, the venue to bring issues forward for public discourse and debate. With social media, Dianis said, “Americans are more aware and ready to report [voter suppression activities] when they happen.” She said that there are more watchdogs and many more groups, not just civil rights organizations, monitoring elections, but even more are needed.

If Selma is “the moment to recommit” to the protection of voting rights, there is important meaning at this time for nonprofits and for foundations. For the latter, Dianis told NPQ, “we have to build an infrastructure that allows us to build that movement, but too often we have found that with philanthropy, funding around voting rights mirrors election cycles.” For watchdogs and activists like the Advancement Project, Dianis noted, “we don’t have a year off…The off years are when the [state] legislature starts to act or the local registrar will do something that makes it hard to vote.”

“We need to have a voting rights movement that doesn’t take a year on and a year off,” Dianis said, in an important reminder to grantmaking foundations.

The dispersed nature of the challenges to voting rights—“a patchwork of state laws,” as Dianis described the situation—must eventually lead to a broader solution, a constitutional amendment for the right to vote, a “national standard…that will settle this once and for all.” Remember that the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution says that no one can be denied the right to vote by virtue of their race or color, but it doesn’t stop states and local jurisdictions from employing other tactics, ranging from the poll taxes and literacy tests of the Jim Crow era, to the residency requirements of more modern times, to the current approaches of voter ID laws and voter caging to make it difficult for people to exercise their franchise. To leave this issue to state-by-state determinations is simply unworkable and inadequate, Dianis observed. “State rights have never been good for civil rights,” she said, “but we’re still in a states’ rights fight, and Republicans love that.” She said that we need an “all-inclusive American movement” on voting rights if the nation is going to elevate voting, as it should, to the equivalent of the nation’s “sacred” commitment to freedom of speech.

Dianis doesn’t ignore the connection between the contemporary efforts of Southern and Northern states to restrict voting rights and the bevy of racial inequities in our society. Noting that this year is the fiftieth anniversary of not just Bloody Sunday, but also Freedom Summer, the Voting Rights Act, and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), Dianis pointed out that with all of that, “we still have the structural racism issues that we’ve always had…Structural racism still lives and thrives…As much as things have changed, they’ve stayed the same.”

Issues of education, jobs, and policing are still current, if not more present than before, causing more people to get involved in today’s civil rights movement. She is particularly appreciative of the activism of young people in Ferguson and elsewhere, praising the “incredible changes that young people are leading.” Noting that young people from SNCC were the ones on the front lines in Selma fifty years ago, she emphasized the importance of supporting the young people engaged and mobilized in these efforts today.

“For civil rights organizations, we are fully in support of all of the young people who are organizing around these issues,” she said. “They have the energy and the commitment, they see the challenges.”

In contrast to some recent statements by a few national leaders disparaging the racial justice organizing by young people, Dianis characterized the movement of young people not as a challenge, but “an incredible opportunity.” They are, she said, “the new SNCC.”

“How do we support young people by really lifting them,” she offered, “not trying to undermine them.” The Advancement Project has tried to live up to the opportunity for supporting new young activists, including, Dianis said, providing legal representation to those trying to stop the tear-gassing in Ferguson and offering help in getting young activists’ voices into the mainstream media.

If there’s a historical comparison between what has been happening on the ground in Ferguson and elsewhere in light of the lessons of Selma, Dianis added, it is the importance of the “authentic voices” of the people most affected by voter suppression and other discriminatory policies speaking out for themselves. It is the energy and power of the people who feel the greatest impact of these governmental actions, much like the work of Fannie Lou Hamer fifty years ago, that leads to building power in communities and more sustainable change.

Therein one finds another challenge for foundations and nonprofits. While there are some foundations, Dianis said, that “understand the significance of this moment…for the most part there’s an incredible gap and incredible lack of resources” coming from philanthropy supporting the organizing and mobilizing of the people most impacted by these policies.

“Philanthropy needs to be ready to take risks in moments of crisis and to stick with it,” Dianis said. “To build a movement, you have to be ready to invest over the long haul, to support fledgling groups on the ground, and to be ready to see some failures along the way, but also ready to see success.” With the tendency of foundations to be risk averse and avoid new, young, untraditional groups, they frequently miss the opportunity to take advantage of this singular point in history, to address not only voting rights issues, which the intrepid Advancement Project does so well, but also issues around educational equity, like the Advancement Project’s pioneering work on the school-to-prison-pipeline. On that issue, the Advancement Project has been working with groups of young people and parents to tackle improper school discipline policies and to fight school closures, including filing Title VI complaints against school closings in Newark, Chicago, and New Orleans. Dianis cited the Advancement Project’s work with Journey for Justice, a coalition of groups in 22 cities fighting against school closures and top-down school privatization.

If the Selma anniversary is the moment to resurrect and revitalize the movement for voting rights—and against the pernicious effects of structural racism in education and other arenas—what will it that take to make that happen? Those whose efforts are focused on restricting voting rights and implementing related policies in schools and housing have “a lot of money and a lot of political power,” Dianis said, while what “we have is people power.” She called for building (and for foundations to fund) an “ecosystem” that includes national groups, local groups, and the authentic voices of people on the ground—even those voices which call for more radical change. All have important roles to play.

Will there be tensions and disagreements among groups within that new civil rights ecosystem? Of course there will, Dianis said, “and that’s playing out now between young people and some of the older people” in the movement today. “That’s okay,” she added, noting, “Each piece (of the ecosystem) has to respect the other piece.” The tensions within social movements often frighten off foundations, but that was occurring in Selma 50 years ago, too, with strategic and tactical differences between SNCC and SCLC activists. But when it came to marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, John Lewis and Rev. Hosea Williams were in the lead, side-by-side.

Things are not the same as they were fifty years ago, but there are similarities. The police in Selma a half-century ago beat peaceful marchers bloody. Today, the controversy around police involves the unfortunate and all too common examples of police using excessive force resulting in the deaths of unarmed black men. In Selma, voting rights were the primary cause motivating the marchers led by now-Congressman John Lewis, considered one of the bravest people ever to take up the cause of civil rights in the U.S. Today, states in the North and the South are implementing voter ID laws, restricting, cutting back on, or eliminating same-day voter registration. eliminating provisional ballots, carrying out efforts to purge voting lists (through caging), reducing times for early voting, and creating conditions for interminable lines for voting in predominantly minority areas. The Advancement Project, under the leadership of Dianis and her colleague Penda Hair, is taking leadership roles in fighting restrictive voting laws in North Carolina—challenging in court the state’s voter ID requirements plus its cutbacks on early voting and same-day registration as violations of the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution—and, in Wisconsin, fighting the state’s photo ID law as a violation of the Voting Rights Act. In addition, the Advancement Project monitors state actions that constrain voting rights around the country and participates in national Right to Vote initiative supporting a constitutional amendment “enshrining an affirmative right to vote.

In the end, these state-by-state, locality-by-locality battles to protect voting need to be replaced by a national standard, enforced across the board. It will require the civil rights ecosystem Dianis described, embracing legacy civil rights organizations and the new young activists on the front lines, the moderate voices of people who work inside the system and those who pressure it from the outside, and the combined efforts of national organizations and on-the-ground community organizers and nonprofit watchdogs. If the right to vote is to be elevated to a position equivalent to free speech, voting rights must become part of the core mission of all nonprofits that are committed to the creation and protection of a vibrant democracy in the United States.


  • kebo drew

    This Rick, is the kind of writing I read NPQ for, intelligence, context, and a way forward for the nonprofit sector and philanthropy. Thanks!:)