Terri Jett: Sessions and voting rights
Friday, January 13, 2017 9:36 AM
INDIANAPOLIS – “Make America Great Again?”
As a child growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area I was aware of the civil rights and voting rights movements as they were taking place right at that time in what was called the Deep South, but I did not personally know of anyone participating in those activities. I did understand from the stories told to me by the elders of my family, especially on my mother’s side, that they had migrated to California from Louisiana because of the racism and oppressive economic conditions that kept so many Black families stagnant and systematically prevented them from progressing.
So even though they were landowners, my great-grandmother, her 15 young adult children, and their families headed west. After all, my grandfather Rafe Taylor told me, in Louisiana if he was walking down a street and a white person was on the same side of the road, especially a white woman, he would have to cross the road or risk getting lynched. Those day-to-day experiences, among others, were just too much to bear. America wasn’t so great at that time.
And while they thought that there was also greater economic opportunity beyond farming, they really just wanted a sense of true freedom and belonging, especially for the children, so the Taylors headed west, while many other Black families from the South headed north – this is known historically as “the Great Migration.”
The stories of my grandparents, which I heard well into my adult life as all but one lived to be at least 90 years old, stuck with me as I decided to pursue a graduate education in Alabama. I wanted to see first hand what they talked about – the ugly and the beautiful, learn that history firsthand, touch red clay, meet the adults who, as children, marched, were hosed, bitten by police dogs, jailed, kept marching and through it all, stayed put. They held steadfast to the Bible and to the U.S. Constitution as both were seen as sacred.
As a graduate student at Auburn University, I found my way to the Black Belt of Alabama, specifically Wilcox County, where Gees Bend is located. Gees Bend was a campaign stop for Sen. John McCain when he ran for U.S. president, and is known for the Gees Bend Quilting Bee and the Gees Bend Ferry. The Black Belt is named for the richness of the soil, but also for the fact that most of its 10 counties have Black populations of at least 75%. Those are also some of the poorest counties in the country.
And so, in 2015 when the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency announced they were closing 31 driver’s license offices because of economic reasons, I knew the Black Belt would be hit hard and that is exactly what happened. Eight of the 10 Black Belt counties had their offices closed, which reportedly saved little money. The NAACP sued and ultimately the U.S. Department of Transportation concluded that Black residents in the state were disproportionately hurt by a slate of closures and reductions in 2015.
This is the state where Sen. Jeff Sessions is from, the current nominee for U.S. attorney general. He is actually from Selma, that recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery Voting Rights March. In 2006 when Congress was holding hearings regarding the extension of the Voting Rights Act, Sessions stated “I am worried because…. (the extension) does little to acknowledge the tremendous progress made in the past 40 years in Alabama and other covered jurisdictions.”
Once Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act was set aside, Alabama went back to its usual manipulations of voter suppression so they could go back to a time where America wasn’t so great. And this is where our next U.S. attorney general is supposed to come from? What time period exactly are we talking about when referencing, “Make America Great Again?”
Dr. Terri Jett is an associate professor of political science at Butler University and is special assistant to the Provost for Diversity and Inclusivity.