Learning from the Past: Reflecting on Bloody Sunday

Restricting voting hours, denying water to those in line to vote, arresting those who disagree with the aforementioned conditions. Is this history from the 1960s, or an issue presented today? 

Some people would argue that it’s both. These issues are bigger than what’s happening in Georgia. It’s a social justice dilemma in general.

While Republicans in Georgia and other states advocating for changes in voting say they are only trying to ensure the integrity of elections, Democrats and many other civil rights advocates disagree.

Dr. Regina Shands Stoltzfus, Professor of PJCS at Goshen College, said she fears that this “oppression of vote” in Georgia will inspire other states to pass similar laws to disadvantage people of color who would support Democrats.

“It seems to me that the people who have the system orchestrated the way it is know that it’s not working and that’s how they want it,” said Shands Stoltzfus. 

While she believes it’s important to evaluate the impact of such changes on the rest of society, she believes part of the motivation stems from systemic racism.

“When you think about all of the different ways in which Black people were prevented from voting, including violence and death, if you don’t know that part of our history, then you really don’t understand how critical the moment we’re in right now,” she said. 

One person who does understand is former Goshen College President Victor Stoltzfus.

On March 21, 1965, Victor Stoltzfus attended the third march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.

“I remember that my Penn State professor said that ‘to have a movement, you don’t need a God but you surely need a devil,’” said Stoltzfus, who served as Goshen College’s 12th president from 1984-96. “He was only half right. I believe that God was also needed and present in the civil rights movement in Selma.”

The Selma marches to Montgomery in 1965 were planned by activists at the time in protest of the decades of unreasonable discriminatory requirements for voting that had disenfranchised the African American population. While the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, there were still many voting laws in place that made it virtually impossible for black citizens to vote.

There were three marches planned in March of 1965, the first attempt resulted in what is now known as Bloody Sunday. The peaceful protest was cut short at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where state troopers and others who were against the marches gassed and beat the protesters.

The second march, later known as “Turnaround Tuesday,” saw the protesters be sent back across the bridge. Although no violent act was committed during the second march, a white group beat civil rights activist James Reeb later that evening. Reeb would die in the hospital two hours after the attack. 

Stoltzfus was so moved by the events in Selma that he went to Georgia and attended the third march that ultimately succeeded. With much of Goshen College’s principles in line with this movement and a previous visit to campus from Martin Luther King Jr., it strengthened Stoltzfus’ decision to partake in the march.

“I’ve never before or since been in such a diverse group of people with conscience.” Stolzfus remarked. 

Very rarely had people seen people of different races, religions, and beliefs come together to partake in something that was meant to help one group of people. Thanks to the marches in Selma, President Johnson endorsed the Voting Rights Act and it eventually became law.

Despite that victory, Stoltzfus said the words spoken in defense of the Georgia voting laws sound eerily similar to those used by people in opposition of the Selma marches and the Voting Rights Act. 

“I brought a skepticism about the claims and rationalizations and lies of people who tried to retain power, and they always give a ‘good’ reason,” he said. 

The Election Integrity Act of 2021, as the new Georgia Bill is called, is meant to do a few things. This new bill passed on March 25th requires voter ID on absentee ballots, limits the use of ballot drop boxes, and makes it illegal to provide food or drink to those waiting in line to vote. 

While these new changes have garnered pushback from several Democratic officials as well as corporations, Governor Brian Kemp claims that this will bring integrity and expand voting access to all Georgians.

Shands Stoltzfus said because it is now relatively easy to vote, many do not remember or recognize how difficult it was for Black people in America to gain the right to vote, and those most engaged in the fight over voting rights seem unable to find common ground.

“There are several conglomerates of advocates fighting for different things but what we don’t tend to see is how blind we are to one another,” said Shands Stoltzfus.

“We have to be in coalition with one another. Only 13% of the population are African Americans, we alone cannot possibly push for advocacy,” she said. “Looking at the Civil Rights Movement, the Selma marches, it seems as though they had already figured that out.”

While it can be easy to just say that people should work together, that is often an ideal that isn’t always put into effect. Goshen College Dean of Students and Goshen City Council member, Gilberto Perez Jr., believes that while this goal isn’t always realistic, there are ways to get people involved and working together.

“For most people, politics is a touchy subject. Most people don’t want to jump straight into politics, so what I tend to do with Latinos is encourage civic engagement,” said Perez. 

While being disheartened by the events in Georgia and believing that this simply galvanizes the general public, Perez also believes that it is important to get people involved in their city through other means at first. Having that care for their city slowly opens them up to talk about politics and as Perez says, “once people are engaged, then they are encouraged to vote, to speak out.”

Gilberto strongly encourages the idea of involvement, even if it means people should be eased into it. 

Shands Stoltzfus also shares that while people are already letting their voices be heard in Georgia, there are ways for those outside of Georgia to help. 

“Funding is always helpful,” she said. “A lot of these advocacy groups could use that help.”

Providing food and any amount of monetary funding will always be helpful for advocacy groups to keep their message going.

It’s very easy to be caught up in an issue like this and see it as one side versus the other, but as Perez would point out, it’s not about fighting a group of people but instead it’s about sitting down and coming to a consensus with both parties. 

“This might sound unconventional but by understanding one another, you can quickly see how someone could support a policy.” Perez said. “They may be apprehensive at first but establishing relationships allows for barriers in communication to come down.”

The law that Georgia passed is not a repeat of the 1960s, however the sense of frustration it causes for one group, while another group is quick to defend the new law draws parallels that are clear to many. Like Shands Stolzfus said, it’s only by working together that people can truly make their point heard. 

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Written by Daniel Robles, Contributing Writer

1 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    May 09, 2021

    Thank you Daniel! Well written and informative. Indeed we do need to work together.

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