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DEBRA HALE-SHELTON: Challenges loom beyond expectations

by Debra Hale-Shelton | June 21, 2020 at 1:50 a.m.

The first time I read J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, I was a college freshman.

I liked the novel, though its language and tone were like no other book I'd ever read. I liked Holden Caulfield, too. He was 16. I was 17, about to turn 18.

Sure, he had problems, but didn't we all? He was disillusioned with the world. So was I. So were most teenagers in the late 1960s and early '70s, as are many now.

Vietnam was at its height with no end to the deaths, the lies, the once vibrant young men--often teenagers--who returned home to an ungrateful nation and often were never the same physically or emotionally. Even as our government sent these men to die for our country, the nation denied those under age 21 the right to vote until July 1971.

A few teenage friends joined me in petitioning to get the minimum voting age lowered. We had a slogan: 18-year-olds should "have the right, not the privilege, to vote." Two of us also wrote the owner of a Lepanto laundromat to complain about a restroom sign indicating it was for "colored" people. The owner removed the sign.

Yes, it was 1968, and African Americans still had to hope, protest and sometimes die for their rights, battles that invariably faced both subtle and blatant white resistance.

Blacks, for example, had the legal right to vote, though it came only after the abolition of slavery, a constitutional amendment, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, lynchings and protests--one of which was eerily similar to a protest just weeks ago--on June 1 at Lafayette Square near the White House.

The earlier protest occurred on March 7, 1965, when "peaceful participants in a Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights were met by Alabama state troopers who attacked them with nightsticks, tear gas and whips after they refused to turn back," according to History.com.

That policing was worse than the tear gas and rubber bullets that paved the way for President Donald Trump's photo opportunity at St. John's Episcopal Church. But the two events also show how we refuse to learn from history, repeat past mistakes and then defend our immorality.

Adopted during Lyndon Johnson's presidency, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 sought to erase a more subtle form of racism in deciding who could vote. The law banned requiring literacy tests and led to the elimination of poll taxes in state elections, already illegal in federal elections.

Voting requirements such as showing drivers' licenses or other specified forms of identification at the polls, speaking English, paying poll taxes, and disallowing votes by mail share a goal: to keep low-income and minority voters away from the polls.

After all, a homeless person probably won't have a driver's license readily available. A migrant worker may not speak English. A poor woman probably can't afford poll taxes. And we don't dare declare an election holiday because almost everyone would then have the time to vote. Instead, we may well see more states where voting machines malfunction, especially in urban areas, and leave workers choosing between standing in line for hours to vote or rushing back to work.

Being black in America has never been easy.

The Equal Justice Initiative said it has documented nearly 6,500 lynchings of black people between 1865 and 1950, The Associated Press reported. Meanwhile, authorities in California agreed to investigate the recent deaths of two black men found hanged from trees 10 days and 50 miles apart after earlier saying both deaths looked like suicides, Reuters reported.

In 1961, white mobs armed with a bomb, metal pipes, baseball bats and clubs attacked the Freedom Riders.

Some of us are old enough to remember when whites and blacks used separate public restrooms and attended segregated schools. In my hometown, blacks had to climb stairs to sit in a humble movie theater balcony while whites got the first-floor seats.

And many of us will never forget the evening of April 4, 1968, when authorities said a career criminal, James Earl Ray, fatally shot Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis. At 39, King had already established his legacy as an advocate of hope and peaceful protest with his "I Have a Dream" speech and his "Letter from Birmingham Jail."

Riots followed King's death. Called the Holy Week Uprisings, the protests took place in cities across the country and led to thousands of injuries and 43 deaths.

As horrible as King's death was, more was at play in the nation's unrest, just as more than one or even two men's deaths led to recent racial protests in America.

Weeks before King's death, a presidential commission released its investigation of 1967 race riots. "Segregation and poverty have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans," the report said, according to a Smithsonian article.

That report cited poverty, a lack of housing access, lack of economic opportunities and job discrimination--conditions, the report said, that may have come as a surprise to white Americans but not to African Americans.

Likewise today, many whites seem shocked by the way some police officers have been caught on video treating black men. But I doubt many blacks are shocked. Their parents and grandparents likely made sure their children knew what to expect and fear long before people had cell phones to videotape arrests.

And as for The Catcher in the Rye, I reread the book in my 40s. By then, I had worked alongside blacks who also were my friends.

I had taught students Holden's age. Many were poor, black and no doubt far more disillusioned than I realized. I tried to motivate them with the same hopes and dreams that often appealed to their white classmates.

Only now do I realize how unrealistic those goals may have seemed to some of my black students. I did not understand the challenges they would face no matter how hard they worked. I should have listened more. I should have done more. I should have; I shall.

Debra Hale-Shelton can be reached at dhaleshelton@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter at @nottalking.

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