By David Kurlander
Last Sunday, thousands marched in support of voting rights and to mark the 58th anniversary of the March on Washington. The celebratory demonstration followed last Thursday’s passage in the House of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which now faces fierce resistance from Senate Republicans, many of whom have championed stricter voter ID laws. On this week’s Now & Then episode, “Attacking and Defending Voting Rights,” Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman contextualized this battle over the franchise, highlighting the fact that 18 states have enacted 30 laws that restrict poll access this year and harkening back to the struggle to pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA) and its 1975 amendments. In 1982, another powerful reckoning over voting rights formed around further amendments to the VRA.
On Valentine’s Day, February 14th, 1982, John Lewis arrived at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, with a group of 3,000 marchers, to protest for voting rights. 17 years earlier, state troopers beat Lewis as he marched for the same cause. “This time, state troopers and local police officers looked on,” the New York Times poignantly reported. Lewis had taken office as a member of the Atlanta City Council at the start of the year, joined the march alongside the Rev. Joseph Lowery, the director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the organization once led by Martin Luther King, Jr. “I came back today with a sense of hope and determination that we are on the verge of building a new movement,” Lewis said.
The marchers were near the end of a two-week odyssey, often in snowy conditions, that would take them to the State Capitol in Montgomery. They began their march in Carrollton, Alabama, where in 1979 two Black activists, Maggie Bozeman and Julia Wilder, had been convicted by an all-white jury of illegally helping 39 elderly, illiterate Blacks fill out absentee ballots during a school board election. One of the women they had assisted showed up to vote on Election Day and denied knowing an absentee ballot had been filled out in her name. Pickens County, where Carrollton was the seat, was 40% Black and had never once had a non-white elected official.
Wilder, a 51-year-old schoolteacher and rural civil rights activist, was sentenced to four years behind bars. Bozeman, a 69-year-old SCLC county official, got the maximum—five years. The two women denied that they had filled out ballots against voters’ wishes. “The only thing me and Ms. Wilder did,” Ms. Bozeman said upon conviction, “was help the people who couldn’t read or write to understand the ballot. We helped them with the reading, but they voted the way they wanted. The law says we can do that…this is still a plantation system here in Pickens County.” The convictions were believed to be the stiffest sentences ever handed down for Alabama voter fraud cases.
Underlying the protest for Bozeman and Wilder was the quest to extend the Voting Rights Act. Key parts of the VRA, including the preclearance requirements that made areas with potential discrimination submit their voting protocols to the federal government (Section 5), were set to expire in August 1982.
Even before the march, Bozeman and Wilder had already shifted the conversation in Washington over the renewal of the Voting Rights Act. Three congressmen traveled to Montgomery in June 1981 to hear testimony about voter suppression. One, Illinois Republican Henry Hyde, was an outspoken opponent of extending the VRA. Bozeman appeared, amid her legal appeal, at the hearings. Bozeman relayed descriptions of white poll watchers and voter intimidation.
“Just being a voter in Pickens County is a wearying experience,” Bozeman said. “Sometimes I feel like giving up, but I keep going on. Indeed, the thing that keeps me going on is to know that I can call upon the Justice Department for relief if need be. If Congress takes the Voting Rights Act protection from us in Pickens County in the state of Alabama, we voters in rural Alabama may as well start whistling Dixie.”
Bozeman’s statement deeply moved Hyde. The following month, in July 1981, he wrote a syndicated op-ed entitled “Why I Changed My Mind On the Voting Rights Act.” “As I listened to testimony before the subcommittee, I was appalled by much of what I heard,” Hyde admitted.
Shortly after Hyde’s op-ed, in October 1981, the House of Representatives passed a bill extending Section 5 and strengthening the language around what defined discrimination. Over the course of the following year, and during the February 1982 march, the bill continued to languish in the Senate.
In January 1982, Alabama Circuit Court Judge Clatus Junkin upheld Bozeman and Wilder’s convictions on appeal. Jenkins argued that the testimony of those who the women helped showed that many were not fully cognizant of their votes. “To me it’s just a straight-out crime,” Judge Junkin told the New York Times. Most of the 300 people in the courtroom sang the Civil Rights hymn “We Shall Not Be Moved” upon the ruling. Junkin had given probation to a white police chief for a similar offense months before.
By the time that the march for Bozeman and Wilder arrived in Montgomery on February 18th, 1982, an additional 1,000 marchers had joined. “We’ve come here today to turn the cradle of the Confederacy into the crib of democracy,” Lowery shouted from the steps of the state capital. “We’ve come here to say, ‘Free Maggie Bozeman; free Julia Wilder.’” From Atlanta, Mayor and longtime Civil Rights activist Andrew Young said that the women “should have been receiving awards and honors.”
After the success of the initial march to Montgomery, renewed controversy grew in both chambers of Congress over the robustness of the House-passed bill. Hyde and much of his conservative cohort began to reverse toward their initial criticisms. Lowery announced in April 1982 that he would resume the march, this time setting out from Tuskegee, Alabama, on a 750-mile, bus-assisted pilgrimage to Washington, D.C., to arrive shortly before the scheduled Senate vote on extending the VRA. “We’ll be going through congressional districts in all five states that have substantial black populations,” Lowery said, “so that intensive voter registration can enable people in these districts to have a meaningful impact on the elections in 1982 and ’84.”
On June 19th, 1982, only hours before the second march arrived in Washington, D.C., the Senate passed the VRA extension. The final bill had some compromises, softening the language around discrimination in Section 2 and allowing states the ability to “bail out” of the preclearance requirements of Section 5 if they could demonstrate that they had gone a decade without enacting discriminatory voting policy. “It’s not a perfect piece of legislation,” Lowery said. “But it’s very significant. It comes at a time when America needed to send a message to black and brown communities that the country is not in retreat.”
After serving nine months in prison work-release jobs, Maggie Bozeman and Julia Wilder were paroled in November 1982. U.S. District Judge Truman Hobbs threw out the case against the women in April 1984. “Any time you try to do something for the upbuilding of humanity, you have to suffer,” Wilder said after the ruling.
Joanne argued at the end of Now & Then this week that efforts to suppress the vote “can be defended as purifying the process, keeping people who are not eligible to vote out. We’ve seen that before.” As the congressional battle for voting rights heats up in the coming weeks, the 1982 voting rights marches—and the activists that they aimed to exonerate—serve as a reminder of what remains at stake.
For more on the 1982 Voting Rights Act amendments and the post-1965 struggle for suffrage, check out Ari Berman’s 2015 Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights.
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