The photographs capture the aftermath of one of Chicago’s worst disasters: rows of sheet-covered bodies inside a temporary morgue, two women crying while clutching a baby in a blanket, a Coast Guard crew hauling a woman out of the river, the Eastland flopped over in the water like a plastic toy in a bathtub, dozens of people atop its side, awaiting rescue.
An open letter from a musical chronicler of the Southern experience.
From White Sheets to Spreadsheets
By Greg Palast, for TruthDig
I hate to spoil a happy ending.
The movie “Selma,” like this week’s commemorations of Martin Luther King Jr.’s march from Selma, Ala., 50 years ago, celebrates America’s giant leap from apartheid.
Half a century ago Alabama state troopers and a mob of racist thugs beat African-Americans and others as they marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, demanding no more than the right to vote. By the time King led 25,000 demonstrators singing “We Shall Overcome” into Montgomery, the state capital, on March 24, the president of the United States had introduced the Voting Rights Act. Free at last—to vote. Roll credits.
Yet, just a few months ago, Martin Luther King asked me, “How long until African-American citizens of Alabama—and Mississippi and Georgia—get the unimpeded right to vote?”
Obviously I was not speaking with King Jr.—a bullet stole him from us in 1968. The question was posed by his son, Martin Luther King III. I spent an afternoon at his home in Atlanta, where we pored over the latest evidence that Americans of color were blocked at the doors to the polls in the 2014 midterm elections—by the hundreds of thousands.
As King’s 6-year-old daughter serenaded us with her toy drum set, we dived into a massive, secretive database used by elections officials—almost all of them Republicans—in 28 states. The scheme, called “Interstate Crosscheck,” threatens to disqualify the ballots of over a million voters, overwhelmingly citizens of color.
It took six months for my investigations team, in coordination with Al-Jazeera America, to get its hands on the names of those tagged for the voting rights slaughter.
According to the GOP officials, these citizens had voted twice in the same election, in two different states—a federal crime. As punishment, their mail-in ballots would be junked and their registrations annulled. But no reporters had seen (or, for that matter, asked for) the lists. State officials, the modern-day equivalents of Bull Connor, refused our requests on grounds that these Americans were all suspects in a criminal investigation and therefore the files were confidential.
Nevertheless, we managed to get hunks of the lists—2.1 million names of a total 3.5 million “suspected double voters.”
Who are these criminal voters? A typical example: Kevin Antonio Hayes of Durham, N.C., allegedly voted a second time in Virginia as Kevin Thomas Hayes. The Durham Hayes, however, swears to me that he has never used the alias Thomas or set foot in Virginia. Another: James Elmer Barnes Jr. of Georgia allegedly voted a second time as James Cross Barnes III of Arlington, VA.
The lists go on like that: huge numbers accused solely on the basis of sharing a first and last name with a voter in another state.
It is clear what attracts Republican Katherine Harris wannabes to this absurd method of identifying fraudulent voters. The prevalence of name-sharing among black Americans is a legacy of slavery. The “Crosscheck” name-match game is also a darn good way of knocking off Hispanic voters. (According to the national census, at least 91.5 percent of Americans named Aguirre are Hispanic and, according to Gallup, two out of three vote Democratic).
I was suspicious—if Kevin Hayes really voted twice, authorities should have arrested him. They should have arrested 589,393 “criminal double voters” in North Carolina alone. But they busted none. Nevertheless, the officials got what they wanted: For example, enough voters of color were blocked, purged and disqualified to help knock a Democrat out of the U.S. Senate this past November.
This situation deeply concerns Martin Luther King III, founder of the Realizing the Dream Foundation. Fifty years after Bloody Sunday and the Voting Rights Act, he said, “The irony is that when you look at Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina, where you have significant African-American populations—Mississippi close to 50 percent—those states still have leadership that is totally Republican.”
The black vote should have turned those states solid Democratic blue. What happened?
Meet the New Jim Crow. Fifty years ago, African-Americans were kept from the polls by the threat of beatings and lynchings. Today, Jim Crow has traded in his white sheets for spreadsheets. He’s Dr. James Crow, systems analyst. His method is lynching by laptop.
At the end of the film “Selma” we are told that the brutal, racist county sheriff was tossed out of office by newly enfranchised black voters. True. But today, Dr. James Crow has a magic machine that can reverse the Voting Rights Act.
Here’s one example uncovered by Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: On the night of Nov. 5, 2002, it appeared that Democrat Gov. Don Siegelman, the favorite of the African-American voters, had won re-election. But at 11 p.m., the white, Republican elections officials of Baldwin County declared they needed to recount the ballots. The county courthouse doors were locked. No press (or black Democrats) were allowed inside. By dawn, the white officials announced they had corrected a “glitch” in the count. Upon recounting, the tally for Siegelman dropped miraculously by 6,334 votes, handing the race to his opponent.
Could we see the ballots? Of course not; they were simply tallies on computer files. The files had been “corrected”—and Siegelman, the choice of the black voter, was gone.
(Siegelman was warned not to complain. He did—and before long he was imprisoned on corruption charges that Kennedy dismisses as “laughable, ginned up by a cast of crooked GOP attorneys.”)
Purging phantasmagorical “double voters” and finding thousands of votes in magical computer systems are but two of the methods at Dr. James Crow’s disposal. Working with Kennedy, I’ve counted nine sophisticated, racially dubious methods for blocking the black vote, costing—by a conservative estimate—5.9 million Americans their voting rights.
Despite the glorious story of the Selma march, the truth is that the USA and Old Dixie in particular are marching backward over the bridge. Disenfranchisement—a fancy word for ballot-box apartheid—is worsening, especially since June 2013 when the U.S. Supreme Court nullified key provisions of the Voting Rights Act.
It would be wrong and demeaning to the memories of those who gave their lives to this cause—including the fathers of King and Kennedy—to say that we’ve won no voting rights victories. This weekend we can congratulate ourselves on America’s great strides against racism at the ballot box. But let’s remember that Dr. King had to lead a dangerous march from Selma for voting rights that were supposedly guaranteed a century earlier by the 15th Amendment to the Constitution—rights won after 600,000 Americans fought to their deaths between Bull Run and Gettysburg.
The struggle for civil and human rights did not begin 50 years ago, and it will not end in another 50. It is a centuries-long story of advance and retreat.
And that’s the lesson. The movie’s over, but not The Movement. It is left to us to march over the bridge again. And again. And again.
Check out the twitter feed of Buzz Fugazi and grab some pithy talking points. Use them the next time you visit some wingnut Congresstool wanting to slash funding for public infrastructure and environmental regulations and cut taxes for the wealthy while piling on sales taxes, making your speeding ticket cost $2000, reducing the minimum wage, and exploding the debt for another unfunded pointless war that will not make us more safe.
When was the last time we reduced the size of the Federal Bureaucracy by getting into another war? The same every time we collapsed the economy by raising the minimum wage. It happens every year on the 5th of Never!
After his online chat Tuesday, Bill had more to say about the Oscar-nominated film Selma, President Lyndon B. Johnson, the Voting Rights Act and how government has changed over the past 40-plus years. Read his Q & A below, and be sure to add your comments — as Bill said in the chat, he reads them all.
What did you think of the film Selma?
Bill: There are some beautiful and poignant moments in the film that take us closer to the truth than anything I’ve seen in other movies to date: the cruelty visited upon black people everyday by whites and armed authorities; the humiliation they faced simply trying to register to vote (“Name all the county judges in Alabama!”); the courage and fear of those black people who put themselves on the line for freedom’s sake; the ambivalence in Martin Luther King Jr. as he faced the inescapability of leadership and constant threat of death. I cannot imagine the dread one had to subdue to step on that bridge that day.And I came out of the theater shaking my head in disbelief at the obscenity of the Republican Party as it has piously but insidiously taken up voter suppression as a priority. The Party of Lincoln? Of Emancipation? Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” of 50 years ago has now become their subliminal mantra: “Whites of America, Unite!” Back in the 1970s, in the early days of a resurging conservative movement, the late Paul Weyrich — godfather of the religious right and co-founder of the American Conservative Union, and of ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council, the powerful lobbying group for corporations and conservatives) – declared:
I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people. They never have been from the beginning of the country, and they are not now. As a matter of fact our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.
So look who won the midterm elections as voter turnout fell to its lowest in 70 years: A coalition of suppressionists doing everything they can to make it hard for black and poor people to vote – and their big donors who give millions to drown out those very same voices. That’s “Free Speech” in the Roberts era.
As for how the film portrays Lyndon B. Johnson: There’s one egregious and outrageous portrayal that is the worst kind of creative license because it suggests the very opposite of the truth, in this case, that the president was behind J. Edgar Hoover’s sending the “sex tape” to Coretta King. Some of our most scrupulous historians have denounced that one. And even if you want to think of Lyndon B. Johnson as vile enough to want to do that, he was way too smart to hand Hoover the means of blackmailing him.
Then, casting the president as opposed to the Selma march, which the film does, is an exaggeration and misleading. He was concerned that coming less than a year after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, there was little political will in Congress to deal with voting rights. As he said to Martin Luther King Jr., “You’re an activist; I’m a politician,” and politicians read the tide of events better than most of us read the hands on our watch. The president knew he needed public sentiment to gather momentum before he could introduce and quickly pass a voting rights bill. So he asked King to give him more time to bring Southern “moderates” and the rest of the country over to the cause, but once King made the case that blacks had waited too long for too little, Johnson told him: “Then go out there and make it possible for me to do the right thing.”
To my knowledge he never suggested Selma as the venue for a march but he’s on record as urging King to do something to arouse the sleeping white conscience, and when violence met the marchers on that bridge, he knew the moment had come: He told me to alert the speechwriters to get ready and within days he made his own famous “We Shall Overcome” address that transformed the political environment. Here the film is very disappointing. The director has a limpid president speaking in the Senate chamber to a normal number of senators as if it were a “ho hum” event. In fact, he made that speech where State of the Union addressesare delivered – in a packed House of Representatives. I was standing very near him, off to his right, and he was more emotionally and bodily into that speech than I had seen him in months. The nationwas electrified. Watching on television, Martin Luther King Jr. wept. This is the moment when the film blows the possibility for true drama — of history happening right before our eyes.So it’s a powerful but flawed film. Go see it, though – it’s good to be reminded of a time when courage on the street is met by a moral response from power.
You were involved in passing the Voting Rights Act? How do you assess its impact all these years later?
Bill: Just as Lyndon B. Johnson said at the time, the right to vote is “the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men.” We’re a different country today because of what happened then, obviously — with black Americans holding office all the way up to the president of the United States. After he signed the Voting Rights Act I asked LBJ if he thought this meant we’d have a black president in our time. He said no, we would have a woman first. Well, one down, another to go.
On the other hand, the reactionaries never give up. And the George Wallace of then would be pleased with the John Roberts of now. You may know the chief justice was a young lawyer in Ronald Reagan’s Department of Justice during the 1980s and doing everything he could to undermine the effectiveness of the Voting Rights Act. Roberts’ great conceit – shared by other conservative members of the court, including Clarence Thomas who keeps trying to kick over the ladder by which he himself was hoisted to prominence — is that racism is no longer the problem it once was. More or less what you can imagine a privileged elite of corporate lawyers would think, no? Read some of the memos and op-eds the younger Roberts wrote arguing for watering down the Voting Rights Act and you will understand why the conservative movement saw him as their new white hope on the bench. He seems to believe discrimination has to be intentional to be unconstitutional – that there’s no such thing as systemic racism, racism layered over decades or centuries. So we have now a one-time foot soldier in the conservative movement of legal resistance to equal rights occupying its commanding heights.
How do you remember LBJ?
(Note: Bill served as Lyndon B. Johnson’s domestic policy adviser in 1964-65 and his press secretary from 1965 to 1967.)Bill: Lyndon B. Johnson owned and operated a ferocious ego. But he was curiously ill at ease with himself. He had an animal sense of weakness in other men — he wanted to know what you loved and what you feared and once he knew, he came after you. He was at times proud, sensitive, impulsive, flamboyant, sentimental, bold, magnanimous and graceful (the best dancer in the White House since George Washington); at times temperamental, paranoid, ill of spirit, vulgar. He had a passion for power but suffered violent dissent in the ranks of his own personality.
He could absolutely do the right thing at the right time — the reassuring grace, if you will, when he was thrust into the White House after Kennedy’s assassination; the Civil Rights Act of 1964; the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But when he did the wrong thing — escalating the Vietnam war — the damage was irreparable.
How would you describe the most striking and significant differences in our government that you have observed between the Vietnam era and today?
Bill: First, the sheer size and complexity of government — check out a recent post on billmoyers.com by John J. Dilulio Jr. reviewing Francis Fukuyama’s new book on the state of democracy; the two of them — Dilulio and Fukuyama — make this point brilliantly. I also just read a thoughtful piece by Charles Lane in the Washington Post arguing that the Great Society programs minted 50 years ago have mutated into sources of new and intractable problems, including their enormous cost; you can’t ignore the argument even as you also acknowledge how the giant tax cuts to the rich have cut government revenues that would help pay that cost. Everybody’s clamoring for more spending on infrastructure but hardly anyone is saying “Let’s raise the gasoline tax to pay for what all of us need and use!”
Second, the growth of the deep state — private instruments or agencies of power acting for and funded by the government (intelligence, the military, etc.). There’s a vast government we don’t see. A long-time senior Republican staff member of Congress, Mike Lofgren, wrote an extraordinary essay for billmoyers.com under the title The Deep State. Read it before you go to bed tonight. Rather, first thing in the morning. If you tackle it before bedtime, you won’t sleep.
And finally — although I should have started with this one: The triumph of money over every aspect of government. Money’s always been a force, but never to the extent it is today. We are just this close (I’m squeezing my index finger and thumb tightly) from oligarchy — the rule of the wealthy few for the purpose of increasing their wealth.
Hope you filthy hippies are ready to get a good talking-to about your drugs and your communism and your satanic rock music, because this week it’s time to get a dose of revisionist history of the 1960s, courtesy of our textbooks for the Christian homeschooling market. Our 8th-grade text, America: Land I Love (A Beka, 1994, 2006), has no doubts about just what a terrible time the decade was, and why:
By the early 1960s, the teachings of humanist philosopher John Dewey, the father of progressive education, had permeated public education. Dewey was a leader in the secular humanist movement, which put man in place of or above God. Moral absolutes, such as those once taught in the McGuffey Readers, were replaced by humanistic ideas such as encouraging children to “follow their animal instincts” and to practice permissive “self expression” in the classroom…
As “progressive” educators removed godly values from the classroom, America’s youth became ripe for the spirit of rebellion that moved across the nation in the late 1960s, opening the door to drug abuse and sexual immorality. As discipline, dress codes, and moral standards relaxed in the public school systems, test scores continued to decline. Rock music began to influence American culture through such popular musicians as Elvis Presley.
In other words, this chapter of Land I Love is pretty much a grab bag of rightwing culture war complaints about the ’60s. Our other text, Bob Jones University Press’s 11/12th-grade United States History for Christian Schools (2001), is slightly less panicked in tone — as usual, it makes fewer sweeping claims about why everything went to hell — but nonetheless titles its chapter on 1963-73 “The Shattered Society” and emphasizes that America just barely avoided utter dissolution in that decade.
U.S. History takes a fairly conventional take on the ’60s, noting the social and political upheavals and sadly shaking its head in disappointment:
As he reviewed the dramatically widespread unrest in the United States, one California newspaper editor lamented, “We just seem to be headed toward a collapse of everything.”
In the midst of apparent chaos, many Americans looked to their political leaders for guidance — and deliverance. The presidents during this era were two of the shrewdest, most experienced politicians in America, Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson and Republican Richard M. Nixon. Yet both found that America’s problems defied their efforts to solve them.
Obviously, Land I Love is going to be a lot more fun this week.
The greatest disaster of the ’60s, according to Land I Love, was America’s public abandonment of God, as forced by the ACLU and just one very bad woman:
In 1962, the Supreme Court removed prayer from public schools, and in 1963, it banned Bible reading from the public schools. These decisions came about largely through the efforts of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, an atheist and Communist who used her teenage son, William, to protest daily Bible reading and prayer in the public schools of Baltimore, Maryland. A liberal Supreme Court ruled that even voluntary Bible reading and prayer were unconstitutional because they “discriminated against” non-Christians.
Of course, this leaves out a couple of details, largely around how you define “voluntary” — it’s perfectly legal, of course, for kids to read the Bible and pray on their own time; the decisions only barred school-organized devotions that kids could “volunteer” to not participate in. For its part, U.S. History simply says that the 1962 Engel v. Vitale decision “banned state-sponsored prayers in public schools as a so-called violation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of the separation of church and state”; while the Bob Jones editors clearly disagree, they don’t bother personalizing the issue as the whim of one cranky atheist commie. Land I Love even devotes a full paragraph to O’Hair’s son, William Murray, and his conversion to Christianity and 1980 “apology” to America
for his role in the removal of Bible reading and prayer from the public schools. He said that his mother had brainwashed him into accepting atheism and Communism, but after years of misery and despair, he had found faith in God. Now he prayed that God might somehow use his testimony to bring prayer back into the classroom.
God, sadly, has continued to slack off on fixing this for the past 34 years, probably because He has been busy helping with all those high school football games. In any case, those clearly illegal Supreme Court decisions were utterly at odds with the True Meaning of the Constitution:
The Founding Fathers who wrote the Constitution had great respect for both prayer and God’s Word. It was because of our Christian heritage that most schools had included prayer and Bible reading in their daily routines for years. The Supreme Court interpreted the Constitution in a way that its writers would not have agreed with.
U.S. History doesn’t attempt to claim that the Founders wanted prayer in schools, but includes the prayer decision as part of a larger discussion of “judicial activism,” which is of course bad, since it expanded the rights of accused criminals and “defined ‘obscenity’ so narrowly that [Roth v. United States (1957)] actually struck down many obscenity laws.” The textbook approvingly quotes Justice John Harlan’s 1964 dissenting opinion that
The Constitution is not a panacea for every blot upon the public welfare, nor should this Court, ordained as a judicial body, be thought of as a general haven for reform movements … This Court … does not serve its high purpose, when it exceeds its authority even to satisfy justified impatience with the slow workings of the political process.
With a resigned sigh, the editors add, “Unfortunately, the majority of Harlan’s associates did not listen to him.”
To emphasize that all these terrible changes were imposed upon a majority of Americans who didn’t want them, Land I Love includes a paragraph explaining that, along with Madalyn Murray O’Hair, there was another bunch of troublemakers to blame:
Since the 1920s, a group of lawyers known as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) had actively defended the extreme views of atheist, socialist, and Communist minorities. In the 1960s, the ACLU began to use the courts to force local communities to stop making references to Biblical values in public life. They claimed that the U.S. Constitution established a “wall of separation” between church and state. Later the ACLU would have bronze copies of the Ten Commandments removed from walls in schools, village halls, and county court houses, and some communities would be forced to ban public Christmas displays featuring the birth of Jesus. The ACLU would also later defend public displays of pornography as an expression of the First Amendment right to free speech.
Because lord knows, there’s nothing in the Constitution about minorities having rights that the majority has to respect. We’re sort of wondering about those “public displays of pornography,” which seem to have fallen out of favor — either that, or, more likely, the editors consider just about every PG-rated movie a public display of pornography.
Now, where are the hippies in all this? Ha-ha, we were joking you with that photo up there — we’ll get to the filthy hippies next time, because we have written our thousand words for this week, and suddenly we are run over by eleven long-haired friends of Jesus in a chartreuse microbus.
Next Week: The Great Society makes everybody addicted to Big Government. Also, hippies.