Saturday, July 19, 2008

Judge: Vote must be defended

t r u t h o u t | 07.18

Judge: Vote Must Be Defended

Tuesday 15 July 2008

by: Denise Smith Amos, The Cincinnati Enquirer

Jones says rights many fought for could be undone.

For retired U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Nathaniel Jones, the fight for voting rights isn't history - it's today's challenge.

Jones spoke Monday at a crowded NAACP luncheon about the late Clarence Mitchell Jr., a personal friend and NAACP leader who for decades lobbied for African-Americans' access to the ballot box.

Jones warned that his work, sometimes accomplished after bloodshed, might be undone by today's courts and politicians, and by the NAACP's recent funding struggles.

He challenged NAACP members to boost support of the group's legal efforts.

"The times demand it," he said. "No other organization in this country has the reach, the history and the know-how ... to meet today's challenges" to civil and human rights.

Jones said Mitchell, who was the NAACP's Washington Bureau director, employed behind-the-scenes pressure in the 1950s and 1960s for civil rights laws.

"The role of Clarence Mitchell in bringing to enactment the Voting Rights Act has been written out of history," said Jones, a friend of Mitchell, who died in 1984 of a heart attack. "He was ... principally responsible for getting (the voting acts) passed. He walked the floors of Congress and button-holed presidents."

Mitchell's early experience as a journalist covering the lynching of a mentally challenged black man prompted him to dedicate his life to civil rights, Jones said.

He covered the lynching, which had been widely publicized in advance. Matthew Williams had killed his white employer and tried to kill himself.

A mob took him from his hospital bed, hanged him outside a courthouse and then dragged his body to the black side of town before setting it afire, Jones said.

Mitchell later became one of the people who orchestrated the NAACP's legislative and legal strategy.

"For decades he waged a stubborn, historic and resourceful civil rights campaign in the halls of Congress," said Laura Blackburn, vice chairwoman of the NAACP legal committee.

Blackburn said that today's NAACP's "severe cutbacks" are shifting those burdens to volunteer lawyers.

Jones urged NAACP members to support the organization's voting rights work, especially since the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld some states' practice of requiring state-issued photo IDs to vote.

"This is a scheme that is transparent," Jones said. "It calls to mind the efforts used in the past to restrict (blacks from) voting."

Jones said that African-Americans used to be required to pass literacy tests, pay poll taxes, interpret clauses in the Constitution and even count holes in soap bars to vote.

He said that in Cincinnati , blacks were "politically impotent" and disenfranchised until national voting rights were passed and enforced. Now, the city has a black mayor and the region has black judges.

But such progress came with pain, Jones said, recalling nine civil rights deaths.

Elbert Williams, in 1940: The body of the Tennessee NAACP leader was found floating in a river.

Harry T. Moore, the NAACP's Florida director, and his wife died Christmas 1951 when their house exploded.

The Rev. George Lee was shot to death in Belzoni , Miss. , in 1955.

Two months after that, Lamar Smith was killed on a courthouse lawn in Brookhaven, Miss.

All had worked for voting rights, Jones said.

Most famous were:

The June 1963 murder of Mississippi NAACP Field Director Medgar Evers in his driveway, in front of his wife and children.

The next year, three civil rights workers - Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner - were kidnapped and killed in Philadelphia , Miss.

Jones said unfettered access to the ballot box is especially important this year, when Barack Obama and John McCain are vying for the presidency.

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