Voices from the violent civil rights era see attacks on voting rights as part of ongoing struggle

Voices from the violent civil rights era see attacks on voting rights as part of ongoing struggle

They are part of a small, vanishing group who lived at the epicenter of the struggle for voting rights six decades ago, an era driven by segregation, violence and the yearning for equality that eventually led to laws bringing the U.S. closer to its promise of democracy for all its citizens.

They reflect on the times and their struggles, and why they are certain it all was worth it. On Thursday, a majority of the Supreme Court seemed to reinforce that view by siding with Black voters in a congressional redistricting case from Alabama.

Ten years ago this month, the court halted what many consider the heart of that landmark law — the ability of the Justice Department to enforce it in states and counties with a history of voter suppression.

The stories from those on the front lines of history recount tragedy, racism, oppression and ultimately hope in seeing a president sign into law a measure designed to ensure equal access to the ballot and fair representation in the halls of political power — from city councils to statehouses to Congress.

Stephen Schwerner lost a brother, murdered in Mississippi trying to register Black people to vote. Nearly 60 years after the Voting Rights Act was signed, he remains immensely proud of his brother, Mickey Schwerner, but with a great sense of loss: “I don’t think anybody in our family has ever gotten over it.”

Civil Rights icon Andrew Young speaks during an interview with The Associated Press, Thursday, May 18, 2023, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Civil Rights icon Andrew Young. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Andrew Young walked with Martin Luther King Jr., on the long road to equality and was with him when he died in Memphis in 1968. Seeing the continued attempts to chip away at voting rights, he knows there are more battles to be fought: “I never thought that the United States or anybody else would be perfect, but I thought we would be constantly getting better.”

Luci Baines Johnson recounts stories of her father President Lyndon B. Johnson at the LBJ Presidential Library, Tuesday, May 16, 2023, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Stephen Spillman)

Luci Baines Johnson. (AP Photo/Stephen Spillman)

Luci Johnson was a teenager when she witnessed “one of the most historic occasions of the 20th century” — her father, former President Lyndon Johnson, signing the law ensuring access to the ballot for people of color. If she could convey a message to Supreme Court justices as they consider another challenge to the Voting Rights Act, it would be for them to remember “what a privilege they all have with access to the voting booth. I would tell them to do all that they can to make liberty and justice a right for all Americans.”

Attorney Joel Finkelstein, who was present at the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, reflects on that historic event and how the legislation was born, during an interview with The Associated Press at his office in Rockville, Md., Thursday, April 13, 2023. Finkelstein began his career as a young lawyer in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice in 1964. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Attorney Joel Finkelstein. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Joel Finkelstein was a young lawyer helping draft the document that became the Voting Rights Act of 1965, overwhelmed to be an accidental witness at the signing and yet unaware of the measure’s magnitude. He remains hopeful, even as voting rights have been eroded over the past decade: “Somehow this country digs out of these messes with people who you never would expect would be there. Go look at 1860. We got Abraham Lincoln, a country lawyer, self-educated out of Illinois, and he became our greatest president, one of the wisest men we would ever have hold public office.”

Civil rights activist and labor leader, Norman Hill, poses for a photo at his apartment in New York on May 10, 2023. Hill was an activist in the early 1960s fighting against segregation when he made a switch to the labor movement, which at the time saw the push for Black voting rights as a way to boost membership in unions. (AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)

Civil rights activist and labor leader, Norman Hill. (AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)

Norman Hill moved from the protests over civil rights to the organization and political clout of the labor movement, where he helped build a groundswell for voting rights. Now in his ninth decade, Hill said the fight must continue, “not just today, not just tomorrow but as long as we live and breathe.”

Civil Rights foot soldier Della Simpson Maynor talks on May 19, 2023, about being clubbed by police on Feb. 18, 1965, the night activist Jimmie Lee Jackson was fatally wounded, while seated near the scene of the confrontation in Zion Church in Marion, Ala. The 14-year-old Maynor was part of a group planning to march to the Perry County jail where a local SCLC field secretary was being held for registering voters. Maynor also heard the gunshots that killed Jackson during the struggle. (AP Photo/Julie Bennett)

Civil Rights foot soldier Della Simpson Maynor. (AP Photo/Julie Bennett)

Della Simpson Maynor was a teenager who pushed herself to the front of a protest in the small town of Marion, Alabama, and was terrified when police clubbed a pastor who was kneeling to pray. Police later struck her with a club as she tried to get away, and she would hear the gunshot from a state trooper that fatally wounded a young church deacon, Jimmie Lee Jackson. His death prompted a march starting in Selma, which would lead to one of the most violent days of the Civil Rights Movement, Bloody Sunday, when police beat protesters trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge: “Without Bloody Sunday, there would have been no voting rights. But without Jimmie Lee Jackson, there would have been no Bloody Sunday.”

Their voices echo across the past six decades, in searing debates over race, equal treatment and what it means to be an American citizen.