I remember the magazine article like it was last week. Newsweek. I found it in the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature, something that might not exist anymore. At least in the minds of those assigned research papers.
It was in Mr. Elcott's U.S. History class that I chose from among the list of approved topics. The Spring of '64 featured all manner of Cold War issues, post Kennedy assassination speculation, and a new "brushfire war" taking hold in an unfamiliar corner of Southeast Asia called Vietnam. But there was one line in that article about voting rights for black people in the South that took my breath away.
"How many bubbles are there in a bar of soap?" That was the question framed in this unforgettable sentence. It appeared as part of a discussion on literacy tests, poll taxes and grandfather clauses used to deny black people the right to vote. A question on a test that couldn't be answered correctly. A tax for a Constitutional right placed on people who barely made enough money to feed themselves. A legal clause that said you could vote if your grandfather did. Your grandfather was a slave. I knew I found my topic that instant. But I found so much more. That innocuous little Newsweek would change my life. In a few short years, I'd be walking the streets of south Texas and seeing the political and sociological realities I'd read about in college firsthand.
Mr. Elcott's class arrived in my development on the cusp of the Civil Rights movement. Elcott wasn't the best teacher I ever had, but he certainly wasn't the worst. He was funny. Jackie Mason funny. A sharp witted, quick tongued Jewish comedian of a man, Elcott was short of creative curriculum, but long on opportunity. It was in this class that information circulated pre texting and email. Notes, whispers, non-verbal communication were common. When one girl in the class wanted an explanation of the term "blow job," her intellectual curiosity was adequately served through detailed written explanation. Prom dates, dances, football games, baseball scores, driving license tips, who got together who broke up, library dates...it all made the rounds.
One afternoon, as Elcott droned on about something going on in Indonesia, a book, a rather large book of photographs, glided from under each desk through many in the class. Some took one look at the cover and passed it along; others spent time looking at each page before skillfully moving it on undetected. I recall the book title: The Movement. It was a photographic history of the Civil Rights movement to date. Mostly I recall the lynchings. The shots of people in the crowd who looked like they were at a Fourth of July picnic. The dangling bodies...wondering who those people were. Emmitt Till hadn't made it to my history text yet. The 3 civil rights workers killed in Mississippi was last year's news. Martin Luther King was still suspected of being a Commie, so we learned much of our history by other means.
Yesterday, when the Supreme Court struck down some provisions of the 1964 Voting Rights Bill, I thought of Mr. Elcott's class. Congressman John Lewis, in his shock and dismay said that the court apparently believes that history cannot repeat itself. I'm wondering, are we condemning ourselves to this repetition?
What bothers me most is that voting rights in this country were bought and paid for in blood. They were forged in exploding bombs, burning crosses, and midnight raids. Bodies floated in murky rivers, scars hide the truth behind peculiar institutions. I'm of the opinion that some laws need to stand because of the history behind them. Lest we forget...