Downtown Sanford march commemorates past injustices
Shouting slogans from the Civil Rights era while marching through downtown Sanford on Saturday morning, six people wound their way to the Lee County Board of Elections to commemorate past injustices and protest perceived injustices in the making.
Acknowledging their small force, Rev. Mamie L. Hooker of Blandonia Presbyterian Church said it's indicative of larger problems of complacency across the nation. Such complacency, she said, forces activists like her and other members of Sanford's branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to struggle against opponents as well as the apathetic.
But the fight — against voter photo ID laws, against proposals to stop same-day registration and eliminate Sunday voting, and in favor of expanding early voting — is worth the struggle, she said.
"We're not doing this just for black people, or for the Democratic cause," Hooker said while talking about voter ID laws. "This is for everyone."
Ervin Fox, president of the local NAACP chapter, said the march was to commemorate Bloody Sunday, the 1965 attack on several hundred marchers setting out from Selma, Ala., headed toward the state's capital of Montgomery, to protest their lack of voting rights. Near the start of the march, the crowd was set upon by local and state police wielding clubs and firing tear gas; mounted police also charged the protesters, and dogs were set lose on them as well.
No one was killed, but 17 people were sent to the hospital, and the march and two others that followed gained national attention. Eight days after that first march, President Lyndon B. Johnson introduced what would later be known as the Voting Rights Act.
Fox was a young soldier at the time of the Selma marches and still remembers thinking how absurd his situation was.
"I could fight and die for my country, but I couldn't vote," he said Saturday. "How about that?"
He returned home to Lee County after his military service and said he first voted in the 1970 county commissioner elections — but that there were still barriers for the local black community to overcome. Fox and Fisher McMillian reminisced Saturday about being arrested, threatened and even shot at in Sanford during the '70s and early '80s when they would go register black people to vote.
"There was this man that would come around in a blue Ford, I think it was, and threaten to kill us if we didn't stop," McMillian said. "Right there on Washington Avenue. ... And they called us the militants."
He said people had pulled guns on him simply for trying to buy soda, so being fired upon for encouraging fellow black people to vote didn't come as a huge surprise. He and Fox laugh about it now, but it wasn't always funny.
"My mother would even tell me to stop," McMillian said. "She was worried someone would come catch our house on fire."
Now, black people can vote. But local and state-level activists are worried that the Republican-led General Assembly is trying to chip away at voting rights. Leaders are trying, for example, to ban all early voting on Sundays — it's allowed in 21 counties but not Lee County — which the NAACP called a direct attack on black churches and voters. The group also opposed legislation that would cut back on the number of days available for early voting.
And then there's the voter photo ID law. Republicans say it would stop fraud, but Democrats say it would disenfranchise thousands of poor, elderly and minority North Carolina voters. A video Fox showed prior to the march also compared it to a poll tax. Anticipating that very allegation, the General Assembly passed a voter ID bill in 2011 that would've made it possible to get a free photo ID at county elections offices. However, the bill was vetoed by then-Gov. Beverly Purdue.
After Fox and his grandson Robert, McMillian, Hooker, Bette Turner and Imani Johnson made their way to the empty board of elections office on Steele Street, they bowed their heads in silent prayer for a moment, then, like the 1965 marchers they were honoring, began the march back.