Blackbird Singing in the Dead of Night

Last month, in striking down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act,  Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the 5-4 majority in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, declared that federal oversight of the electoral process in mostly southern states, including various counties in Florida, no longer was necessary because “things have changed dramatically.”  The Chief Justice mentioned how in the Freedom Summer of 1964, three civil rights workers had been murdered attempting to register African American voters, and how the following year, police beat black marchers in Selma, Alabama on Bloody Sunday .  His decision implied that in today’s United States, with a black President and black elected officials, we are largely, if not entirely, colorblind.

My mind jumped back to the Chief Justice’s majority opinion in Shelby County when I heard late Saturday night that a nearly all white jury (one juror was Hispanic) had acquitted George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin homicide.  How could Zimmerman not be guilty when the police specifically told him to get back in his car?  And why was he following Trayvon Martin in the first place?  If Trayvon Martin had been white, would anyone have questioned his presence in a gated community?  Are we still killing black men—and their supporters? 

Yes things may have changed, but how much?  Do we really live in an idyllic colorblind society, as five Supreme Court justices seem to think?  Are we really at a point in time when we can discard the hallmark piece of civil rights legislation?  Not long after the Supreme Court’s decision, Southern states rushed to enact legislation making it more difficult for the poor and minorities to vote. 

Disappointed though I was by the Trayvon Martin verdict, perturbed as I was by the Supreme Court’s decision, this week I was inspired by a couple of songs that reminded me of the hope and fellowship that came with the civil rights movement and the marches I and so many others participated in.  At a blues festival in Rockland this weekend, I listened to the great soul and gospel singer Mavis Staples sing “Freedom Highway,” about the march on Selma.  Check out the video on YouTube; I guarantee you’ll find it uplifting.  And in Boston I heard Paul McCartney sing “Blackbird,” which I never had realized he had written about the Civil Rights movement.  So like McCartney’s blackbird, this is our moment once again to arise; the courts are not our only bulwark to defend liberty.  Like those on the Freedom Highway, it is time for us to shake off our complacency and march.  Only then can we ensure the words of the prophet Amos that justice will flow like a mighty river

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