On August 6, we observe the anniversary of the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This landmark legislation struck down a range of barriers to Black citizens’ exercising their right to vote, including “literacy tests” and poll taxes. It also provided protections against the pervasive violence that barred millions of African Americans and Latinos from voting in the South and other parts of the nation where White supremacy ruled. The progress made is evident everywhere. The year before the legislation was passed, there were about 300 Black elected officials around the country. Now there are nearly 10,000. That political power has been translated into economic progress for all Black citizens and has provided hope and opportunity for millions of children who otherwise would have been left behind.
Currently, the Bush Administration is eroding the voting strength of minorities. I’m referring to the replacement of senior staff attorneys in the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division with many whose political loyalties are more important to the White House than their qualifications and their commitment to equal protection of the law. This is especially alarming because the Civil Rights Division is charged with enforcing the Voting Rights Act. Then there’s the firing of U.S. attorneys for refusing to use their prosecutorial authority to intimidate activists promoting minority voter participation during elections. President Bush has appointed justices to the Supreme Court who recently demonstrated their eagerness to turn the clock back on civil rights and women’s rights by ruling to overturn voluntary school desegregation plans in Louisville, Kentucky, and Seattle, Washington. And he has done nothing to address the purging of minorities from voter registration rolls.
The ability to elect our political leaders is a precious and fundamental right for all of us, one that must be protected. Too many have fought, sacrificed and even died to secure the franchise. As we recall the well known names of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Congressman John Lewis and Mrs. Septima Clark—it is also important to remember the countless unknown heroes and heroines, like June Johnson, who filled out the ranks of the movement throughout the South. I am saddened by June’s recent death, this past April. Over the years she remained my dear friend.
June Johnson began her career as a soldier in the struggle for voting rights at the age of 15 when she joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Greenwood, Mississippi. In June of 1963, returning from a training session in Charleston, South Carolina, she was arrested with Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer and others in Winona, Mississippi. They were thrown in jail and brutally beaten. This terrorist act sought to fill them with such fear that they would never participate in any future civil rights activities. But their jailers failed. Mrs. Hamer went on to head the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and June Johnson became a fearless and vocal leader of civil rights marches and picket lines. June marched with Dr. King from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. It was that pivotal event, together with the sacrifice of Birmingham’s children, which finally moved Congress to enact the Voting Rights Act.
After earning a degree from Stillman College in 1972 and a masters degree in sociology from Jackson State University in 1974, June worked to advocate for Head Start and other antipoverty measures in Mississippi, as well as to expose the inhuman prison conditions there which continue to this day. June was not satisfied with simply having laws on the books that were not implemented. She worked as a paralegal at North Mississippi Rural Legal Services and was a plaintiff on numerous civil rights cases, including a lawsuit to force Greenwood, Mississippi, to hire African Americans on an equal basis in various city departments and in supervisory positions and not just as garbage collectors in the sanitation department. June was the first Black woman to apply for a job in the city’s fire department, and she ran for a position on the Leflore County Board of Supervisors.
In 1982, June moved to Washington, D.C., where she worked in the Office of Paternity and Child Support Enforcement and as a home hospital teacher. Over the last few years, she was a consultant on civil rights documentaries, including “Freedom Song,” about Mississippi SNCC workers, and “Standing on My Sisters’ Shoulders,” about her civil rights activism and that of Fannie Lou Hamer, Victoria Gray Adams and others. She was also featured in a National Public Radio presentation, “Mississippi Becomes a Democracy.” These efforts are very important for us to honor and emulate, because if too many of us indulge in an “it’s all about me” ego, we will lose sight of what it takes to build a movement. The passage of the Voting Rights Act was brought about by the same force of thousands of courageous young people like June Johnson in Mississippi and Alabama and across the South who would not be turned around. Regrettably, the right to vote remains at risk for many people of color, yet so many of us are too lazy or selfish to bother to vote at all—to our peril. We need a new generation of young leaders like June to take up the call, to continue the battle to protect the right to vote for future generations, and to ensure that the clock of racial progress is not turned backwards.