Democracy, Civil Rights and the Ice Cream Truck »Albuquerque Journal


I was born a second-class citizen. I wish that was hyperbole, but it isn’t. The people born into slavery at the end of the Civil War were still alive when I took my first breath, although their testimonies were not included in the mass-produced history books for American schoolchildren.

Because I was a child, I did not know how my existence was limited by law and tradition. I learned my ABCs shortly before the United States Senate began debating the merits of HR 7152, a landmark civil rights law that emerged from the House of Representatives.

The 1964 bill debated in the United States Senate sought to end racial discrimination and segregation in most spheres of American public life. Then, as now, a two-thirds vote was needed to end the filibustering in the Senate that had lasted for months. The question of whether people who looked like me had the right to be first-class citizens, including the right to vote, was the most debated question in American politics.

For decades, Southern Democrats, just like their spiritual descendants in the GOP today, have successfully filibustered to thwart progressive legislation. The big difference is that at that time, members of the Senate did not apologize for using filibuster to preserve discrimination.

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Today, systematic obstruction is defended in the name of “good order” and protecting “the rights of the minority party”. Democratic senators able to dispel the noxious cloud of procedural legal jargon and end the Jim Crow relic veto on our national politics lack both the moral imagination and a broader vision of the history needed to cope with the moment.

I can’t remember what I was doing on June 10, 1964, when 27 Republicans and 44 Democrats worked together to finally end the filibuster that had stymied all major civil rights laws since the collapse of the United Nations. Reconstruction nearly a century earlier.

On June 19, 1964, the same Senate chamber where dozens of civil rights bills had died for decades saw the passage of an ambitious civil rights bill that was almost unimaginable until then. let it happen. On July 2, the House adopted and adopted the Senate version.

In a signing ceremony at the White House televised to the nation the same day, President Lyndon Baines Johnson enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It was the moral equivalent of the Emancipation Proclamation for millions of people. ‘Americans who were “free” only in the pages of children’s history books.

I can’t remember what I was doing on that hot day 57 years ago when, with the stroke of a pen, LBJ rocked American democracy from the patriotic sleepwalking of the previous century to a recognition that we had a long way to go to fulfill our democratic potential.

I can’t explain what I was doing that day almost six decades ago, but the romantic in me would like to think that maybe it was that same day as my mom, instead of being annoyed by my Incessant whining for ice cream, unusually, took me for a sprint behind Mr. Softee’s slow truck as he walked down the block playing his circus theme music at maximum volume.

Did she really buy ice cream for all the kids that followed the truck with us, if I recall vaguely? Probably not, but I remember one day – most likely that summer – when, after chasing that truck with me in her arms, she bought me an ice cream sandwich instead of the ice cream cone. much cheaper vanilla with nuggets which had been our routine.

I’d like to think that was his way of celebrating the signing of the Civil Rights Act the only way a 4 year old would understand – through the deliciously exquisite pain of brain freezing caused by the first ice cream sandwich. I’ve never had. Each time this has happened, it has created an indelible memory of a summer that has never gone away.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was followed by LBJ’s signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – legislation designed to cement the civil rights gains of the previous legislative session in which politicians of the South were already working hard to try to get around them.

Specific legislation was needed to ban literacy tests at polling stations, especially in the South, where black voters often had to recite entire sections of the state constitution or interpret obscure sections of the law before they could. be allowed to vote.

The fight in the US Senate over the voting rights law was as controversial as the fight over the civil rights law the year before, but it came through a shocking 77-19. After a month-long debate in the United States House, it was passed by a vote of 333-85 on July 9, 1965. LBJ, who used the presidential chair more effectively than any president since FDR, fortunately promulgated it on August 6. , 1965.

Suddenly, the United States Attorney General was able to investigate the use of modified voting taxes and other underhanded workarounds in local elections that Southern Democrats had devised to keep Jim Crow on life support for as long as possible.

In 1966, the United States Supreme Court aided the federal government in its quest to bring recalcitrant states into compliance with civil rights laws by permanently banning the use of all local taxes in state and local elections.

Federal election voting taxes were banned in 1964, but deadlocked Confederates and other state advocates had managed to hold on to an increasingly shrinking island of voter suppression for a few more years.

Realizing that they were losing the culture war that had enshrined inequality as an American virtue for centuries, their rhetoric shifted from open defense of white supremacy to “protecting the integrity of the vote.” against “unqualified voters” who they claim would flood the polls and endanger democracy. apartheid in America.

They especially hated the provisions of the Voting Rights Act that required states that had historically discriminated against blacks to obtain federal permission to make alterations, redistribute compound boundaries, and set hours. from voting to the relocation of polling stations and the design of ballot papers.

Since 2014, the United States Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice John Roberts, has done everything possible to reverse the democratic dynamic embedded in the Voting Rights Act by weakening the section that requires states to obtain federal clearance. make changes that would disproportionately affect voters of color.

The attack on voting rights did not start with the Trump administration, but it was exacerbated by the empowerment of a hostile Justice Department and the appointment of three very conservative Supreme Court justices who are agrees with Justice Roberts that racial discrimination is no longer the existential threat. to democracy, it was formerly.

In practice, the Supreme Court has given state legislatures the right to make it more difficult for all citizens to vote as long as full access to the ballot box is not denied to those who are slowly being disenfranchised.

The weakening of the provision in the Voting Rights Act that allows the federal government to interfere with the state’s power to regulate voters’ access to polling stations has resulted in the passage of hundreds of laws by Republican-controlled legislatures in recent years to revoke access to ballots.

Fueled by the maniacal ex-president’s big lie about the ‘2020 election theft’, the re-enactment of Jim Crow voting patterns and voter suppression programs across the country is touted as “voter integrity. And an attempt to “correct” an overbreadth of federal power tolerated for far too long.

These aren’t even clever updates to the arguments that kept Jim Crow entrenched for decades before LBJ forced the US Congress to do the right thing. Yet one almost has to admire the brutal efficiency with which this stealthy, multi-fronted campaign against democracy is carried out, despite the modern GOP’s anger and its descent into Trump cult cultivation.

I have three grandsons aged 2 and under. They were born with rights and opportunities recognized by law and tradition that I did not have at their age. No one in the generations before me would have imagined that the rights I have now would have even been possible, despite the noble rhetoric of this nation’s founding documents.

Although my grandsons are decades away from the creeping anguish of being denied the right to vote, it is the duty of every citizen who still has unrestricted access to the ballot box to feel anxiety on behalf of every member. of his generation and vote accordingly.

I was born at a time in American history when my citizenship status by birth was elevated by a president who challenged the entrenched prejudices of the American people and their representatives in Congress. He was realistic enough to know that complacent people who believe in their own righteousness seldom do the right thing.

For this reason, I never lose sight of the fact that our “democracy” is literally younger than me, despite what the history books say. I may not remember the great civil rights battles that unfolded around me in the early 1960s, but I do know that it was they, and not patriotic abstractions, that made my present life possible. I am grateful to all the souls who stood up, marched, picketed, legislated and voted on my behalf. Their sweat equity made me a first class citizen.

As reminded us on January 6, democracies are fragile. The right to vote is a precious generational trust that those of us who have even the faintest memories of the world before civil rights and voting rights laws are obligated to protect. We are no longer children chasing ice cream trucks down the street. It’s a democracy (if we can catch it).


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