Local view: Fourth done, it's time to work on new voting rights

With hot dogs, canned beer and firecrackers: that's how many of us celebrated the Fourth of July. But now that the holiday is over we need to scrutinize the status of our freedoms.

David McGrath

With hot dogs, canned beer and firecrackers: that's how many of us celebrated the Fourth of July. But now that the holiday is over we need to scrutinize the status of our freedoms.

The first threat I ever received for exercising free speech was in September 2007. I wrote an essay in which I criticized Louisiana District Attorney Reed Walters for what many agreed was a racially uneven application of the law.

A black student in the town of Jena had asked at a high school assembly if he could sit under a shade tree on campus in a location popularly favored by white students. The next day three nooses hung from the tree. Strife between black and white students erupted in the ensuing days, and Walters' subsequent handling of charges against offenders incensed African-Americans.

That was because Walters brought no charges against the three white teenagers who strung up the nooses. On the other hand, he charged a black youth who confronted and beat up a white student with a felony that carried a 22-year prison sentence. The beating victim was treated at a hospital and released the same day.

My essay appeared in the Sunday edition of the Mobile Press Register, for which I worked as a freelancer, writing book reviews and the occasional op-ed. A resident at that time of Dauphin Island, 40 miles south of Mobile, I was used to Dixie politics and had grown accustomed to feedback on articles I wrote for the Press Register and for several other southern papers, including the Birmingham News and the Mississippi Sun out of Biloxi.


But one e-mail that arrived was chilling. Its author questioned my credentials, in so many words, for daring to comment on an issue in the South. So far, so good. But then he concluded by saying I had better write a "retraction" and, "... we know where you live."

Practically speaking, there was slim chance an anonymous critic would gather his posse and track me down in Dauphin Island. But the first time you find something like that in your inbox, addressed to your first and last name, it feels like assault.

I thought about that e-mail after the Supreme Court ruling in late June striking down the Voting Rights Act, which for years had closely monitored Southern states with a history of intimidation and the denial of rights to African-Americans. Chief Justice John Roberts explained there was no longer a need for a handful of Southern states to obtain "pre-clearance" from the government for their voting regulations. His rationale was that more elected officials in those states are black, proving times and attitudes have changed.

But have they?

Weeks after the Jena episode, I received word of a message board called, some of whose members were making obscene references to me as a blankety-blank "leftie" for a different column I wrote about immigration in the Birmingham News. Nothing alarming. Columnists welcome vivid feedback. It shows what you've written had impact.

But Googling the group, I found it was a Southern membership of a national right-wing organization by the same name that had been credited with inspiring the President Clinton impeachment hearings by spreading false rumors he fathered an African-American child. The posting infamously was headlined, "N--- Baby," according to the Huffington Post's Steve Young.

They are still around, 10 years later, engaging in Internet exchanges in slave-era dialect, racially taunting our first black president ("We are sending the ghetto to represent us overseas.") and his young daughter after she was photographed wearing a shirt with a peace sign ("Ooooo, Malika, yew is bad, wearin dat shirt.").

Your claims notwithstanding, Justice Roberts, the fight for freedom is not yet over. Look closely at the new voter-identification laws in Texas and Alabama. Review Florida's voting restrictions in the last election that were a national embarrassment.


While it is true African-Americans no longer are arrested, beaten or killed just for trying to register to vote in the South, as they were before 1965, they are still being denied their freedoms with roundabout legislation.

It was fun to celebrate our freedoms on the Fourth with parades, cookouts and shows of pride in our flag.

But now that it's over, let's start work on a new Voting Rights Act.

David McGrath of Hayward is an emeritus professor of English at the College of DuPage in Illinois and is the author of the novel, "Siege at Ojibwa." Contact him at .

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