Review: March: Book Three

March: Book Three, John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell. Marietta, GA: Top Shelf Productions, 2016.

Summary: The culmination of this three part work, focused on the movement to obtain voting rights in Alabama and Mississippi, the March on Birmingham, and the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Book Three of March begins with the SNCC decision to focus their efforts on voting rights in Mississippi and Alabama during the election year of 1964. John Lewis has already been working along those in Selma trying to register to vote, rebuffed each day by Sheriff Clark. Bob Moses and Al Lowenstein went to Mississippi, recruiting volunteers to teach Freedom schools, resulting in the death of three volunteers driving from the north.

Resistance arises not only in the violence of the south but also the political maneuverings of the north. The SNCC’s hope was to seat a black delegation from Mississippi at the Democratic Convention. Despite powerful testimony, especially that of Fannie Lou Hamer, they are rebuffed and seats are removed so they cannot participate. Johnson lost the south anyway but won the election. Somehow, if voting rights would happen, they would have to force his hand.

After a trip to Africa where he encounters Malcolm X for the last time, he returns to the people in Selma. Marches to the courthouse end in beatings and arrests, even when the city’s black teachers show up, toothbrushes in hand, prepared to go to jail. After repeated failures, the SNCC debates whether to march to Birmingham to protest for voting rights, joining other civil rights leaders. The SNCC decides they are out. John Lewis will go alone, representing only himself. We see Lewis in his trenchcoat and jail backpack, the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the armed police blocking their way, the marchers kneeling to pray, and then the attack. Lewis was beaten senseless, believing he was seeing his own death.

King had not been present. While Lewis is in the hospital recovering from head injuries, King comes to Selma, leads a march and stops when confronted–and calls on them to turn around. Lewis was in the vanguard of “Bloody Sunday, King in front of “Turnaround Tuesday.” One senses the tension here. Lewis and others take the beatings, King gets the Nobel Prize. There was both admiration of his leadership and the ways he had demonstrated courage, and resentments that he avoided the most violent confrontations.

Subsequent hearings exposed the brutal violence and Governor Wallace’s support. Johnson refuses to placate him and initiates the legislation to pass a voting rights act with one of the most inspiring speeches Lewis had ever heard. The injunction to prevent the marchers to go to Birmingham was lifted, and the march took place. On August 6, 1965, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, striking down all the obstructive maneuvers of the Jim Crow south.

John Lewis kept marching until this year (2020). He exemplified a movement determined to fight without violence or weapons, but with the willingness to put his body on the line, suffering indignities to press for the dignity of his people. He exemplified the unflinching resolve to “march!” when others shrunk back, and the courageous quality of a leader who would not ask others to do what he would not do himself. These volumes capture not only the violence but the man–resolved and yet human–capable of being discouraged, but never giving in. John Lewis left a great gift in leaving this narrative that throbs with his passion, a rendering of history by one who helped make that history.

My reviews of the other volumes in this set:

Do Not Fear Poll Watchers

Voting Booths in Cleveland Heights” by Tim Evanson licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

During the presidential debate on September 29, the president called upon his supporters to show up at voting precincts as observers to make sure there is no fraud in the election.

In truth, there has been very little voting fraud in the United States. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative group, documents 1,298 proven cases of voter fraud in the United States over a twenty year period, or roughly 65 per year on average–for the country, or a little over one vote per year per state. The Brennan Center observes that one study showed only 31 cases of impersonation fraud out of one billion votes between 2000 and 2014. One Brennan Center study revealed only 30 instances of non-citizen voting out of 23.5 million votes in precincts with heavy immigrant populations.

One real concern about this call for observers is the intimidation of voters. Already, chanting supporters of the president showed up outside an early facility in Fairfax, Virginia. These people are not poll watchers and most states have regulations about how close to a polling place campaign supporters can demonstrate, and that they cannot impede voters from voting.

Poll watchers are permitted and regulated by law in each state. The National Conference of State Legislatures provides a summary of the laws for each state. The full text of these laws for each state should be referenced because it includes information not in the summary. I also found one inaccuracy for Ohio–poll watchers must be registered to vote but do not need to be from the precinct they are observing. I will use Ohio’s law (Ohio Revised Code 3505.21) as an example. Here are some pertinent facts:

  • Poll watchers must be registered voters.
  • They must be appointed by their political party or a group of five candidates.
  • Only one person is permitted per precinct and may observe the casting and counting of ballots.
  • No candidate, no one in uniform (highway patrol, police, fire, military, militia, or any other uniformed person) may serve as a poll watcher.
  • No one carrying a firearm or other deadly weapon may be a poll watcher.
  • Appointments of observers must be received by local boards of elections at least eleven days before the election.
  • For those observing the counting of absentee ballots, observers must be appointed at least eleven days before the ballots are ready for use.
  • No one other than poll workers, election officials, representatives of the Secretary of State, police, and officially appointed observers may be present for the counting of votes.
  • They receive no compensation from public funds.
  • They swear the following oath: “You do solemnly swear that you will faithfully and impartially discharge the duties as an official observer, assigned by law; that you will not cause any delay to persons offering to vote; and that you will not disclose or communicate to any person how any elector has voted at such election.”

Each state’s laws are different. What should be noted at least about Ohio’s:

  • No one can just show up as a self-appointed observer. It is against the law! You must be appointed ahead of time meeting your state’s requirements. Voters not officially appointed may vote, but then they MUST leave.
  • There are a number of protections against voter intimidation or pressuring: only one per precinct, no uniforms (which can be intimidating), no guns or other weapons, no delaying of voters, and respecting the privacy of the ballot.

It is important that states, county boards of election and poll judges are all prepared to enforce the law for fair and free elections. States have declared that they are prepared for this whether you vote by absentee ballot, early voting, or on November 3 at your precinct.

The Democracy Project provides “how to vote” information for each state in both English and Spanish.

Some important things:

  • If you are not registered, register to vote by the registration deadline for your state. You can’t vote if you miss this deadline.
  • If you are voting absentee, request your ballot now, read the instructions carefully and follow them scrupulously, including the ID requirements to certify your identity. Mail this well ahead of election day.
  • If you vote in person, familiarize yourself with your local ballot. The League of Women Voters provides information for every part of the country of what is on your ballot. Also, make certain to be prepared to meet all the identification requirements for your state, follow all the instructions for properly voting and having your vote recorded. Poll workers are glad to help with questions.

Do not be afraid to vote by whatever means your state provides. Given the possibility of poll watchers, know the laws in your state, and if you see something out of order, or are in any way impeded in voting by someone other than an election official, report this to the precinct judge, and if not satisfied, your county board of elections.

Voting is one of the great rights of democracy, and one of the most solemn responsibilities of citizenship. Women and people of color had to fight for the right to vote. Some blacks died just trying to register. I was one of the first eighteen year-olds to vote. We fought for this right because in my day, we were old enough to die in military service, but not old enough to vote. A right not exercised may be taken away. We should not let poll observers or anyone else deter us from exercising these rights. I’ll be looking for lots of those “I Voted” stickers!

Review: Freshwater Road

Freshwater Road
Freshwater Road by Denise Nicholas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is the Freedom Summer of 1964. James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner have gone missing. Celeste Tyree, a black student at Michigan who grew up in Detroit has gone to be a voting rights volunteer in Mississippi at the urgings of her white boyfriend, J.D.

The novel takes us inside the realities of Sixties racism in Mississippi. The town to which Celeste is assigned has had a lynching within the last five years. While training in Jackson, she is harassed while distributing leaflets and arrested for littering. En route to Pineyville, where she will work, her male driver, Matt, is stopped, searched and beaten by the Highway Patrol while she cringes in fear inside the car. Early on, the home she is staying in on Freshwater Road is fired into in the beginning of the night. She is clearly not welcome.

This is also a kind of Freedom Summer for Celeste. She left for Mississippi without telling her father, Shuck, except by letter which arrived after she left. In the course of the summer she confronts the complicated relationship between her mother and father and has to decide how she will cope with a revealing letter from her mother Wilamena.

Equally, she faces the choice between fear and leading a civil rights effort among the residents of Pineyville, working with the courageous children who attended Freedom Schools and the adults who attempted to register to vote. The tension of the novel increases as events move toward the group of six’s attempt to register to vote.

The book chronicles a journey into adulthood that not only faces the reality of racial prejudice but also the flawed human nature within her own community. Confronting domestic violence and marital infidelity and the limits of what people sometimes are able to do about these things faces her with choices about how she will deal with her own complicated family life.

This novel worked at several levels for me. It opened my eyes further to the vitriolic racism that is a recent memory for many blacks, and still a present reality. It also gave an account of flawed and courageous people facing hard realities. While there are themes of sexuality and violence, these are handled with restraint. Indeed, the narrative “voice” of this novel had a quietness and steadiness that allowed the unfolding tensions of the novel to create their own drama. I understand this is the author’s first novel. All that I read here suggests an author of great promise.

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