Democracy

Civil Rights Ghosts Haunt Capitol Hill

Several ghosts from the civil rights movement haunted Capitol Hill on February 27, but it was a little unclear how many were the ghosts of CRM past and how many were the ghosts of CRM future. The State of Alabama, where so much civil rights history was made, had built the house from which many of these ghosts came.

On one side of First Street the ghost of Rosa Parks, embodied in a 9-foot-tall statue, waited in the Capitol’s Statutory Hall to be unveiled by President Obama, her political descendant. He was assisted by both party’s leaders while some still-living civil rights activists, a few blood relatives, members of the public and a lot of press crowded the space trying to see.

On the other side, the ghosts of CRM past, present and future were duking it out at the Supreme Court. Shelby County, AL had challenged the section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that requires covered jurisdictions to clear any changes in how they conduct elections with the Department of Justice. Its lawyers argued that ghosts of racial sins past had no place in the present. The DoJ maintained that these racial sins were not yet ghosts.

Outside, a couple hundred civil rights supporters rallied on the sidewalk. Some of the speakers soon walked across the street where they had reserved seats in front of the stage in Statutory Hall. The ghosts of CRM present could be seen in the faces of the six elected officials who sat on that stage. The two Republican leaders were both white men. The four Democratic leaders included one white man, one white woman and two black men.

Behind both events is some history and politics, which didn’t generally make the press. Those six faces on the stage represented vast changes from the days when the Republican Party was the party that freed the slaves and the Democratic Party was the party of white supremacy. In the 19th century, not a single Democrat in Congress from any state voted for any civil rights bill, even though those bills were only intended to affect the South.

Not only were all the African-Americans elected to Congress in the 19th century Republicans, but so was the first African-American elected in the 20th century – Oscar dePriest of Chicago (1928-1934), who was born in Alabama. When President Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act he correctly predicted that the white South would leave the Democratic Party. Indeed it had begun to leave in 1948 when four deep South states left Harry Truman off of their ballots because they didn’t like his civil rights policy.

Shelby County was changed by the civil rights movement and the Voting Rights Act. It sits right below Jefferson County, whose main municipality of Birmingham is the site of a lot of CRM history. Shelby County is the site of white flight. It’s where the white folk fled after blacks took over Birmingham.

In the 1960s, Shelby was a rural county of about 35,000 people, 19 percent non-white. Jefferson had 640,000 people, 35 percent non-white. Birmingham, had 340,000 people, 40 percent non-white. Before the civil rights movement came to Birmingham only 10 percent of blacks of voting age were registered to vote, compared to a little less than half of the whites.

As the number of black voters shot up, whites moved out. In 1979 Birmingham elected its first black mayor (Richard Arrington, Jr.), and it hasn’t had a white mayor since. Over the next 45 years Birmingham’s population declined by 125,000 and became over 60 percent non-white. Shelby County’s increased by 165,000 and became almost 90 percent white. Birmingham is still electing Democrats. In Shelby County, every elected official running under a party label is a Republican.

With the whites, went the money. Most of them fled to Hoover, which became a wealthy suburb of Birmingham. Its median family income is three times that of Birmingham. More income in a county means more taxes to local governments. Whereas Shelby County is among the 100 highest income counties in the US, Jefferson County filed for bankruptcy on November 9, 2011.

These are also the ghosts of CRM present.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lannykaufer Lanny Kaufer

    Excellent article. Great to hear from the scene of the action with such an incisive perspective. Apparently, the Civil Rights struggle is far from over.

  • Stoney

    I heard a report that the Rosa Parks statue replaced one of Robt E. Lee. That should be an interesting story of how it got there in the first place and how the decision was made to replace it instead of some other one.

  • Laya Firestone Seghi

    Thank you, Jo, for continuing to “tell it like it is,” just as you have been doing for the Women’s Movement too. Yours is a voice of clarity, worthy of the history books of our generation.