Boston College students took part this past Sunday in a commemoration of 1960s civil rights marches, organized in conjunction with the symposium on the 1965 Voting Rights Act held the previous day in Robsham Theater. (Photo by Frank Curran)
Past and Passion Recalled
Symposium on legacy of Voting Rights Act evokes strong feelings, dialogue
By Greg Frost
William Faulkner once observed that the past never dies, and anyone attending last Saturday's symposium in Robsham Theater marking the 40th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act would have been hard-pressed to disagree.
For more than four hours, speakers and audience members engaged in such passionate debate over the historic piece of civil rights legislation that it seemed hard to believe the law is four decades old.
The symposium, "Retracing the Struggle: The Legacy of the Voting Rights Act of 1965," was organized by the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities and hosted by Boston College. The free event featured three panel discussions and attracted a diverse crowd including BC students and faculty, high school students, community activists and others.
Among the panelists were Columbia University Law Professor Patricia Williams, former US Sen. Harris Wofford and Taylor Branch, a Pulitzer Prize-winning chronicler of the 1960s civil rights movement.
But the event's main attraction was US Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who enthralled audience members with his first-hand account of the tumultuous events that led Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act. The law struck down literacy tests and other discriminatory practices that barred blacks and other minorities from voting in the South. Several provisions of the act will expire in August 2007 unless Congress acts to reauthorize them.
On March 7, 1963, Lewis led hundreds of marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, which led to a confrontation with state troopers that became known as "Bloody Sunday." Recalling the injuries he suffered that day, Lewis predicted that Congress would reauthorize all sections of the Voting Rights Act.
"Some people may call it emotional, but it's more than emotional. I gave a little blood on that bridge for the right to vote, for the right of all of us to participate in the democratic process," Lewis said.
"There may be some people who want to stand still and go back, but we are not going back. We have come too far to turn around."
Lewis was also one of the featured speakers Sunday during a three-mile march through Boston designed to commemorate the walks that he and other civil rights leaders led in the 1960s. Sunday's march included between 40 and 50 BC students, including Omolara Bewaji, '07, who is president of the AHANA Leadership Council and who said she was inspired by the Georgia congressman's remarks.
"He reached out to the younger people in the audience and gave an account of what it was like to fight for such a basic right that so many of us take for granted today," she said.
Among those who heard Lewis speak at Saturday's symposium was Cutberto Garza, Boston College's new academic vice president and dean of faculties who officially started work earlier this week. Garza, the former vice-provost at Cornell University, said he was impressed with the debate he heard at the symposium.
"It obviously aired a number of issues that need to be discussed," he said afterward. "It was an example of a university at its best in terms of raising issues that are difficult and merit careful debate."
Earlier, Garza himself participated in the discussion, earning applause from fellow audience members when he asked panelist Roger Clegg a question.
Clegg, vice counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative group that specializes in civil rights, immigration and bilingual education issues, voiced overall support for the Voting Rights Act but said he opposes renewing a provision that allows certain jurisdictions to print ballots in languages other than English.
Clegg called this component of the law "very puzzling," particularly because the ability to speak English is generally required for naturalized citizens, and citizenship is generally required for voters, he said.
This prompted Garza to approach one of the microphones on the audience floor and elaborate on his Hispanic heritage. Garza, who is from Texas, noted that his family has been in the United States for at least 15 generations. Moreover, he said, his ancestors did not come to the United States; the United States came to them, via the invasion of Texas in 1846.
"Why should your language preference trump mine, if we're both US citizens?" Garza asked Clegg.
Clegg responded that a common language was necessary to ensure unity and proper functioning in such a multi-ethnic, multi-racial country as the United States.
The first panel discussion traced the turbulent history that led up to the Voting Rights Act. Prof. Alan Wolfe (Political Science), director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, moderated the second panel, "The Social and Political Impact of the Voting Rights Act."