A history of the fight for voting rights and the movement to restrict them once again.
In 1962, Bernard Lafayette Jr., a slim, erudite, 21-year-old civil
rights activist with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee
(SNCC), was looking for a new assignment. He’d just finished exams at
Nashville’s Fisk University, where he was one of a pioneering group of
students who had desegregated Nashville’s lunch counters during the
sit-ins and integrated interstate bus travel with the Freedom Rides.
During the latter mission, Lafayette was beaten in Birmingham and
arrested in Jackson, and he narrowly escaped death when his bus was
attacked by white supremacists in Montgomery.
In the summer of 1962, Lafayette visited SNCC’s headquarters in Atlanta.
SNCC executive secretary James Forman showed him a large map with tacks
in places where the group was active. One place—Selma, Alabama—had a
large X over it. SNCC had abandoned the city, Forman told Lafayette,
because the organizing work was “too hard.” Only 156 of its 15,000
eligible black residents were registered to vote. “During the past
decade,” writes Gary May in Bending Toward Justice, the first
history of the Voting Rights Act’s passage in 1965, “only seventy-five
blacks—twenty-eight of them college graduates—had tried to register, and
all had failed.” Lafayette, one of the unsung heroes of the civil
rights movement, departed for Selma that fall.