The 1965 Selma, Ala., events were a milestone in the great struggle for liberation. With the overthrow of Reconstruction in 1877, it had been a long, bloody road of struggle against the system of Jim Crow and Klan rule. The South was a haven for corporate profits because of its apartheid system, which also kept unions out and wages low. The Klan, the ultimate organized terrorist group, was the enforcer of this fascist-like system. Those who did resist were subjected to the murderous activity of the Klan.
Mississippi Summer had happened the year before Selma. The Southern racists had committed murders, including that of the three civil rights workers, Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman, in Philadelphia, Miss., and had jailed and beaten scores of others. The nation was deeply concerned about racism and violence. The racists were then held in contempt and disdain by the vast majority of the American people.
African Americans all across the land were angry and militant and demanding change. In 1965, the struggle had been heating up in Selma. The Klan had murdered Jimmie Lee Jackson. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee with the help of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference organized a protest march from Selma to Montgomery, the state capital.
The racist police arrested over 700 people. Six weeks later the civil rights activists organized another march. This time, mounted police using nightsticks and tear gas viciously attacked and forced back the marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. It was all captured on national television and earned the name “Bloody Sunday.” All over the country there were actions in sympathy with the marchers. The racists struck again by murdering a white minister, the Rev. James Reeb, who had taken part in the “Bloody Sunday” march.
In response to the escalating racist
violence, then-President Lyndon Johnson had no other choice: he had to send in federal troops, marshals and the FBI to protect the marchers, who won the right to march from the courts. The march was going to happen. The Klan and the Selma authorities were fascistic and nobody knew what they might try. On Sunday, March 21, 1965, the marchers gathered. Many leading national figures from the labor movement, civil rights organizations, political figures, Black, white and brown, and many brave local people showed up. Numbering more than 3,000, they marched 12 miles a day, under the protection of the federal government. By the time they got to Montgomery the march was 25,000 strong. It really shook up the Southern power structure.
Once again the murderous Klan struck. With an FBI informant in the car, the Klan murdered Viola Liuzzo, a mother and wife of a Teamster from Detroit, as she was driving back from the march. The country was enraged.
This historic struggle showed the courage and determination of the civil rights movement and the African American people. It also said a lot about the democratic feelings of the U.S. people. It pushed Johnson to sign the Voting Rights Act on Aug. 6, 1965.
Significantly, after 1965, some of the racists changed, but the bulk of the right-wing Dixiecrats did not change and began their move from the Democratic to the Republican Party. In 1968, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was born and challenged the racist delegation to the Democratic Party. This and Nixon’s “Southern strategy” escalated the shift to the GOP.
Today, these same racist forces that gave rise to the slaveocracy in the 1800s and the Dixiecrats in the 1900s are now fully aligned with and in support of the ultra-right GOP, which dominates Congress, the White House and the Supreme Court.
We must never forget what these ultra-rightists did in Florida in 2000 and in Ohio in 2004 through their racist voter suppression apparatus. This is an attack on democracy. They are continuing the legacy of the Klan and Jim Crow.
This Bush administration is more dangerous then many Americans realize. When you look at it through the prism of the class struggle and the fight against racism, what they are doing to roll back democracy is frightening.
Starting with Reagan, the right-wing Republicans have been working overtime to remove civil rights from the moral agenda of the nation. Civil rights is not a “special interest.” It is fundamental to the national interest. And we cannot let them destroy this principle of U.S. democracy. The Republican Party is the party of racism today, and the Democrats by and large have let them dominate the nation’s politics. The Bush administration’s policies today are deeply racist and immoral. They can only be described as social Darwinism at its worst. Bush is a pathological blame-the-victim racist. Secretary of State Condeleeza Rice and Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez are instruments of those policies.
At a recent meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus, Bush was asked if he supported the renewal of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which comes up for renewal in 2007. Reportedly, he said he would have to study it. After his violations of voting rights in 2000 and 2004, his answer has to be taken as a “no.” The fight to renew this critical act will be a mighty struggle indeed. But the big turnout at the March 6 commemoration march in Selma and the March 19 demonstrations against the war in 800 communities across the country shows that the great legacy of struggle for civil rights and peace is alive and well and in motion.
To win we need a broad, multiracial coalition of labor, peace and other progressive forces along with a lot of old street heat. That will really give Bush something to study.
Jarvis Tyner is executive vice chair of the Communist Party USA. This article is xcerpted from a talk delivered at the New Haven, Conn., People’s Center, Feb. 27.