‘Selma’ and Real-World Voter Intimidation

A scene from the film "Selma."
A scene from the film “Selma.”Credit Atsushi Nishijima/Paramount Pictures, via Associated Press

Northerners who went south at the start of the civil rights movement were stunned to find localities where African-Americans represented an overwhelming majority of the population – but not a single black person could be found on the county voting rolls or in the jury pool. The new movie “Selma,” which focuses on the civil rights campaign in Selma, Alabama that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, vividly illustrates the system of intimidation and misdirection that made this possible.

An especially revelatory scene depicts a middle-aged black woman named Annie Lee Cooper (played by Oprah Winfrey) confronting the registrar in Dallas County, Alabama in her latest attempt to register. Ms. Cooper passes her application to the scowling clerk, assuring him that everything is right this time. He barks back that nothing is right until he says it is and lets drop that her white employer will not be happy to know that she has been stirring up trouble by seeking the vote. In the fashion of the times, he demands that she recite the preamble to the Constitution. Unable to stump Ms. Cooper there, the registrar asks how many county judges there are in the state of Alabama. When she replies that there are 67, he sneers and demands that she name them, which, of course, she cannot do.

Similar procedures were once used to bar black voting applicants all over the South. Registrars – who wielded absolute power – were free to administer easy questions to white applicants and impossible ones to blacks. The tests were often too long to be completed within the allotted time, unless, of course, your registrar favored you and put the time requirement aside. The questions were ambiguously phrased, so that the inquisitor could declare the answers right or wrong depending on who the applicant was. You can read Louisiana’s state literacy test here.

The clubs and tear gas that greeted voting rights demonstrators in Selma 50 years ago have passed from the scene. But measures designed to keep black voters away from the polls are very much with us. That impulse gained momentum after 2008, when African-American and Latino voters surged to the polls in the election that brought Barack Obama to the White House. The Voting Rights Act has since come under heavy assault. States have levied all kinds of restrictions on early and absentee voting; on where, when and how people can register. The trend toward requiring voters to have drivers’ licenses or other government-issued photo ID’s is especially destructive in minority areas, where people are less likely to have the required credential. Beyond that, voter intimidation has made a comeback, with political operatives challenging legal voters with the clear intent of frightening them away from the ballot box. The tactics are different, but they are just as dangerous and anti-democratic as the ones that Annie Lee Cooper faced in Selma.

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