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Right To Vote: Civil Rights Activists Say We've Been Here Before

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

You've heard it many times before - the new Jim Crow, the idea that the onslaught of new state laws dialing back voter access is a revival of the era when segregated states defied national outcry to continue the exclusion of Black voters. President Biden this week put it this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The 21st century Jim Crow assault is real. It's unrelenting.

CORNISH: For veteran human rights activist Ruby Sales, the analogy doesn't quite do justice to either era. Sales is founder of The SpiritHouse. And when I asked her if there was a particular bill or election or Supreme Court ruling that strikes her as a turning point, she said this.

RUBY SALES: You probably need to think a little bit differently about how you ask some of the questions because you're - it's very difficult to get to where we are by looking at these things as single events.

CORNISH: Sales joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, as a teenager at the Tuskegee Institute. She went to work as a student freedom fighter in Hayneville, Ala., where she narrowly escaped a shooting by a segregationist.

SALES: I think that day is part of a larger story about white violence against freedom fighters during the southern freedom movement and the fact that we were part of a movement where we were constantly under the weight of terror.

CORNISH: When she hears Republican lawmakers describe their efforts as election integrity or antifraud or say that this is about making it harder to cheat at the ballot box, she says that does feel like language she's heard before.

SALES: The whole notion of unfair elections and poisoned elections is very familiar. And it's predicated on inherent criminality of Black people and making us unfit to participate in democracy. And rather than seeing us as citizens who are inheritors of democracy, we are seen as enemy combatants who pose a threat to the efficacy of democracy.

CORNISH: The idea of inheriting a legacy, well, that's another undercurrent to this debate.

OMAR WASOW: Hi, Papa.

BERNARD WASOW: Hi, Omar.

CORNISH: That is Bernard Wasow and his son Omar. Now back in 1964, Bernard was a junior in college and one of many white volunteers who joined the Freedom Summer of activists who went to Mississippi to register Black voters.

B WASOW: And in a sense, we were being brought down because the Black civil rights movement was just not in the news. If people were killed, if people were gassed, nobody heard about it.

CORNISH: His son Omar, who identifies as Black, is now a professor in the department of politics at Pomona College. And he uses data and statistics to understand the effectiveness of political movements, in particular the civil rights movement of the '60s.

O WASOW: When protesters were nonviolent and the state engaged in brutal repression, that was a very powerful way to get media attention and persuade the public that the need for issues like voting rights was urgent.

CORNISH: The Wasows spoke to us about how they see this moment.

O WASOW: I did grow up hearing these stories and feel like I'm a child of the civil rights generation and felt like there was this incredible inheritance that people of my generation got from my parents' generation and those, you know, of our forbearers who fought so hard for the right to vote. And I wanted to understand sort of what happened that we had this shift from the victories of the civil rights era to this moment where we're seeing really a dismantling of voting rights in the country.

CORNISH: But you also say that it's not like the U.S. is going to return to the Jim Crow of the '60s as well. So what is it that you see that is happening and how do you think of that analogy?

O WASOW: I think what we see is a broad attack on the idea of multiracial democracy. Right now, there are efforts like making it harder for Native Americans in Arizona to vote or making it harder for people to vote with things like long lines, and that those kinds of tactics are direct echoes of the kind of poll taxes and other policies of the 1960s.

CORNISH: Bernard - because when you got on the line, Omar called you Papa. Both of you seem very kind of, you know, emotional and thoughtful people. I guess I wondered what it was like for you to hear him be emotional over this period in time.

B WASOW: You know, I'm not terribly optimistic, and I certainly don't feel that the young people have dropped the ball. It's just it's a - it's more like rolling the rock of Sisyphus.

CORNISH: It feels like you were more hopeful in '65.

B WASOW: Well, I was 20 years old. I'm 77 now. I was, you know, because things were coming up, because things were getting better, because victories were achieved. And to some extent, I want to add that one of the things that's changed is that people are more likely to be ashamed these days if they say, you know, I'm in favor of only the right kind of people voting. The idea that everyone has a right to vote is more deeply entrenched now. And that means that I - the people who want to get rid of the right to vote are going to have a harder time. And I hope they have a hell of a time.

O WASOW: Papa, can I ask you a question? Just how does it feel to watch the Voting Rights Act get eviscerated by a thousand cuts?

B WASOW: I just don't understand how people like the judges on the Supreme Court can do that. I mean, how could they have so little sense of history? Or is it truly that they are - that they have ill will? I find it astonishing.

CORNISH: Or their argument would be that they see the country has made gains and that to make these changes is to acknowledge that.

B WASOW: Yeah, and I would not deny that things are better now than they were in 1964, that it's going to be very hard to take away - you know, to return Mississippi to a state where 1% of Black people vote, which is how it was, from now, where - I don't know what it is. But it's very hard for me to understand how people can justify what they're doing. History is not a one-way street. Yeah. I mean, it's - I don't think that, you know, this is a beginning of the end, but it's terribly discouraging.

CORNISH: The state of voting rights - discouraging for Bernard Wasow, who registered Black voters in Mississippi in 1964. He spoke with us along with his son, Omar. And that leads us back to our civil rights fighter, Ruby Sales. What does she think about this moment? Well, for starters, she says you can't rely on bickering Washington politicians.

SALES: The whole notion of unfair elections and poisoned elections is very familiar. And it's predicated on inherent criminality of Black people and making us unfit to participate in democracy. And rather than seeing us as citizens who are inheritors of democracy, we are seen as enemy combatants who pose a threat to the efficacy of democracy.

CORNISH: The state of democracy - as the series continues, what the new voting restrictions mean for the future of the American experiment.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEBASTIEN TELLIER'S "FANTINO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.