My Reflections on Selma: Jack Ellis Recalls the History, and Surveys Some Present Challenges, of Race and Voting in America
By C. Jack Ellis, former Mayor of Macon, March 14, 2015:
On September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln announced his intention to sign the Emancipation Proclamation, which he did on January 1, 1863. Soon after Lincoln’s announcement, in an October 12, 1862 newspaper article, Karl Marx wrote that Lincoln’s “proclamation, . . . the manifesto abolishing slavery, is the most important document in American history since the establishment of the Union.”
I would have agreed with that sentiment — prior to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But the Voting Rights Act in many ways is just as important.
One week ago, approximately 100,000 of my fellow citizens and non-citizens alike converged on the small southern town of Selma, Alabama to commemorate the 50th anniversary of what, in my opinion, is the most important legislation ever enacted by the Congress of the United States — The Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Our President, Barack Obama, gave what could very well be one of the best speeches of his presidency.
In his speech, the President suggested that, but for the Voting Rights Act, he in all probability would not have been elected President of the United States. But for the Voting Rights Act, I have no doubt that I would not have been elected as the first and only African-American mayor of Macon, Georgia. Furthermore, had the Supreme Court not dismantled the Voting Rights Act in 2013, there was a fairer chance that I would have been elected mayor of the new consolidated Macon-Bibb government.
I was born and raised in “Jim Crow” Macon, not so far from Selma. When those 600 or so brave souls, both black and white, marched across the infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma in 1965 to demand the right to vote, though, leading to the signing of the Voting Rights Act later that year, I wasn’t there. Instead, I was stationed in Paris France, serving the U.S. Army.
Although I had grown up in the segregated city of Macon, protesting and demonstrating for the right to vote was the furthest thing from my mind in March of 1965. I was having too much fun being treated as a human being without regard to race or color by the majority of the French population. I would often think of how I would be perceived if I were to walk down Cherry Street with these same white French people. I think I know the answer to that question. As President Obama said in his speech in Selma this past weekend, we are light years removed from that dark day on the Edmund Pettus Bridge where our fellow citizens were savagely run over and beaten for wanting to do something as common in our democracy as vote.
Although I was far removed for what is commonly referred to as “Bloody Sunday,” I was drawn to Selma to help commemorate the 50th anniversary, and to show my respect to those who gave so much that I might have the opportunity afforded me in elected politics in the South. As a black man, I have harbored some deep-seated resentment against those who denied my mother and father, and the millions of other southern black citizens, the right to vote for no reason other than the color of their skin. However, after listening to our President speak, and surveying the large, jubilant crowd in Selma, where he exhorted us all to move forward together – black and white and all others. I came away from Selma thinking that our country, the country that I fought for and was prepared to die for in Vietnam, was finally able to rid itself of most of the ghost of its racist past. I felt that all those in attendance in Selma and others from around the country had for once laid down the burden of race that has divided our nation and city for too long.
However, one could not help but notice the residue of past discrimination in Selma and other places in the country, especially in the old confederacy known as the “Black Belt” that includes Macon. One witnesses very little economic power in the hands of the descendants of enslaved Africans in Selma, Macon, and, for the most part, throughout our nation.
I still left Selma hopeful that the future was a bright one for my grandchildren who would have opportunities that I could not have imagined as a young black kid growing up in Macon, Georgia. Just as I was basking in the glory of Selma, I wanted to believe that our country’s head and heart were finally in sync. For Nelson Mandela had reminded us, “A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination.” We have made great progress in the race relations arena, but just as I was prepared to declare a victory of sorts, the racist rants from a band of white fraternity members from the University of Oklahoma reminded me and the nation that there is still much work to do, as our President reminded us in Selma.
Race relations in our nation have proved to be a marathon and not a sprint. For just as the marathon runner does, no matter his or her position in the race, they keep moving forward. That’s what we must do as a nation in dealing with the matter of race – no matter our position or station in life, we must continue to move forward toward that elusive, beloved community. Karl Marx was onto something, but freedom without the right to vote kept not only black citizens in bondage. Without voting rights for all, all remained bound.
So let us all look to the future with much hope. As St. Clement of Alexandria reminded us, “If you don’t hope, you will not find what is beyond your hopes.” I am hopeful for better race relations throughout the land, and that we can all in our hearts and our heads celebrate Selma.