From Selma to the Roberts Court: Reflections on Voting Rights History

Diane Nash, Dorie Ladner and others who led and joined the March 1965 demonstrations that created the Voting Rights Act speak with Colorlines about their work then--and now.

By Brentin Mock Feb 21, 2013

There’s a lot we may not know about how the Voting Rights Act became the shining emblem of civil rights legislation in America that it is today. We know there was a "Bloody Sunday" in Selma, on March 7, 1965, where racists cops bludgeoned the heads of black civil rights activists while they kneeled praying. We know that weeks later Martin Luther King, Jr., led a march from Selma to Montgomery, not only to demand that Alabama Gov. George Wallace stop police from attacking black Americans trying to vote, but also to honor all those who had died in the struggle. And we know that eventually that year Congress and President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into effect, essentially stopping literacy tests and poll taxes and finally enforcing the 15th Amendment.

What we may not know is all that was lost before Bloody Sunday and after. We can quantify how many lives were lost, but it’s unknowable how many pints of blood were lost, how many teeth were lost, jobs lost, sanity and emotional fortitude crushed. These were resilient and ultimately victorious people. But such sacrifices come with a toll.

Some of us may know that a brave woman named Diane Nash orchestrated the Selma to Montgomery march, and had to aggressively urge King to sign on after four young girls in Birmingham were killed when cowards bombed a church. We don’t know what her efforts cost her soul.

We don’t know the names of all the people who marched with Nash and King, and what they were thinking as they passed through mobs of angry, racist white "citizen councils" and Klan gatherings. The best way to learn is to hear directly from some of those people, about what it cost them and what they learned in the quest to assure voting rights for Americans of color. 

So in the lead up to next week’s Supreme Court hearing on the Voting Rights Act, we asked some of the lesser sung heroes of the ongoing voting rights struggle about their experiences, from the Freedom Rides to the Selma marches to the D.C. bill signing. We spoke with Diane Nash, and also with Sheyann Webb-Christburg, who was nine years old when she participated in the failed Selma march that turned bloody; Doris Crenshaw, the NAACP’s student council vice president during the Montgomery Bus Boycott; Jerome Gray, former head of the Alabama Democratic Conference who did most of his voting rights fighting in the courts; and Dorie Ladner, who worked with every major civil rights group, including SNCC, CORE and the NAACP, and participated in every civil rights march from 1963 to 1968.

Here they discuss the historical fights for voting rights, and also the current fights, including voter ID laws, and next week’s Supreme Court hearing. 

Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images

Doris Crenshaw, 70: Voting was very important to us. When we started registering black people to vote [the local registrars] kept quiet about when and where to register. They said the [voter registration office] would be open on certain days, but really it was only due to the word of the people working in the buildings–the janitors and so forth–that we got word about when the [poll] books would be open. We struggled to get the right forms for people and had to go with them to register to vote. Mrs. [Rosa] Parks tried four or five times before she finally registered and her husband was never registered to vote.


Diane Nash, 74: The Sunday that the four little girls were killed in the bombing on the 16th St. Baptist Church, my former husband James Bevel and I were crying, we were both very sad. We agreed that we wouldn’t let little girls get murdered and do nothing about it. We both felt very responsible as though they were our children and we felt we had two options: The first, we felt quite confident we could find out who was responsible for the bombing and make sure they were killed. The second option was that if we got the right to vote, blacks in Alabama could better protect our children. So we made a conscious decision to pursue the second option.

Sheyann Webb-Christburg, 57:  As a child, I would slip out my back door to go to Brown Chapel [AME Church in Selma] when my parents overemphasized to me not to go out there and participate in that "mess." The thing that was so special about being around those freedom fighters and foot soldiers was that if you were around them there was such a deep, embedded spirit you couldn’t walk away from. As a child that was where my courage was first initiated.


Dorie Ladner, 70: For the march to Montgomery, we drove from Natchez, Miss., to Selma and assessed the situation. We determined [in Selma] that we weren’t going to get killed on the [Edmund Pettus] bridge, and SNCC made a statement that we would not participate because we did not have any protection, and we saw that it was a death trap. When Dr. King made it to Montgomery [days later], I met them there. I know many people who died trying to vote.

Photo credit: Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images

Nash: [Long lines] were part of our demonstrations when we were trying to get the right to vote. Huge numbers of people would go to the courthouse [in Alabama] and many would not get registered at all, or sometimes [the voting registrar] would call one or two people [from the lines] in, but then not call anyone else in. Sometimes people in those long lines would be attacked or beaten by the sheriffs and police. The lines of people waiting to vote were trying to register, but many of them didn’t hold much hope that they would actually be able to register. So lines like that were themselves, in fact, demonstrations or petitions for the right to vote.

Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images

Jerome Gray, 74: We’ve made tremendous gains. We made strides because we had the Voting Rights Act’s Section 5 to use against the bad actors. But if we didn’t have that weapon then the bad actors didn’t have to prove that the [elections law] changes they were doing were discriminatory or diluted the black vote. If not for Section 5, the only thing we could have done was file a complaint in court under [the Voting Rights Act’s] Section 2. Sometimes that can take a year or two, and the burden would have been on us to show that what they have done is discriminatory.


Webb-Christburg: There’s no comparison of what happened in the 1960s to people protesting today. It was a different time. Those people were committed then and faced opposition and oppression in a very different way. People are just not willing to go that extra mile with the challenges of today. That’s one of our problems. It’s not just young people, but adults alike. But the thing I constantly encourage kids to do is to read and also to go somewhere in United States where those protests were held so they will feel it. There’s no way that young people can come and take part in [the annual Selma] Jubilee celebration, and hear those freedom songs, and walk across that bridge and not feel those vessels of hope.

Nash: When we would ask people to attempt to register, they would go to the courthouse and very often someone would call the plantation owner where they lived and worked and say, ‘Your Willie,’ or ‘Your Mary is down here trying to vote,’ and by the time Willie or Mary got back to the plantation they had been fired and had no place to live. Very often these people had huge families, sometimes 16 or 17 children. But the people would still go down and try to vote, and they knew this would happen becuse it had happened so many times before. They still made the sacrifice because they wanted to improve the lives of other black people.


Ladner: Lawrence Guyot was talking about Section 5 on his deathbed. He was a political animal and believed that Section 5 needed to stay in tact because it was the only way that all of us who fought and bled and died to vote will keep our rights protected. I feel [Shelby v. Holder] is a spiteful act. So here we go again. I don’t know why we who have struggled, paid taxes, fought, bled and gave labor have to come up before the courts once more to extend the right to vote. When will it end?


Photo credit: William Lovelace/Express/Getty Images

Nash: Section 5 does not need to be changed. The South has made some improvements, but not enough. I think that the last election, with all those attempts to suppress the vote, and having people wait in long lines, and eliminating some days of early voting and photo ID laws prove that those days are not over and protection is still needed.

© 1965 Spider Martin


Gray: My position is that Section 5 is needed, and certainly in Alabama which I know, have worked in and have lived for most of my life. It has been extremely useful in stopping bad stuff form happening and even today I can truthfully say I’ve watched this state change in terms of gains blacks have been able to make as a result of having the Voting Rights Act in place, including Section 5. If you have bad actors [outside of Section 5 covered jurisdiction] then add them to the list. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. There is a provision under the Voting Rights Act where the good actors in the South can bail out of coverage of Section 5. if you take the oversight away then these radical conservatives will begin to show their hand again and think they can do these things with impunity.


© 1965 Spider Martin

Webb-Christburg: I think [the Supreme Court review of the Voting Rights Act] is senseless. People have died to gain these rights back in the 1960s and today we are being challenged for trying to protect that right. It truly doesn’t make any sense to me. What I’m hoping this will do is continue to raise the conscience of our young people to take advantage of opportunities, and to strike a chord with them to rally and not only be educated but be a part of the process. What I’m encouraging right now is for young people to be educated about the voting process in terms of the past and what is happening today.


© 1965 Spider Martin