Recalling civil rights’ foot soldiers

As America re-inaugurates its first black president today, 78-year-old Gordon Martin Jr. won’t be among the celebrities and dignitaries in Washington for the gala celebrations. That’s never been his style.

Instead the retired judge will be gearing up to tell the stories of unsung people – teachers, lawyers and others – who opened the door for African-Americans to vote in 1960s Mississippi. On Monday (Jan. 21), he’ll address the annual Martin Luther King Jr. dinner and program at First Congregational Church in Melrose.

Martin speaks from experience. As a young Department of Justice attorney, he tried a landmark case on behalf of disenfranchised voters against an obstructionist Hattiesburg registrar and in the process helped document the need for federal oversight.

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Now Martin, who lived 41 years in Newton before moving recently to Jamaica Plain, aims to remind locals how hard ordinary people had to fight for voting rights 50 years ago – and how the fight continues around the country today. One key to that story, he said, is remembering those who bravely asserted their rights despite threats and lynchings by the Ku Klux Klan  .

“I hope people will realize that a movement isn’t just the people at the top,” said Martin, author of Count Them One By One: Black Mississippians Fighting for the Right to Vote (University Press of Mississippi, 2010)  . “If we didn’t have people who had attempted voter registration and had been disgracefully turned away, [then] we wouldn’t have had the cases that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act” of 1965.

When Martin arrived in Mississippi in 1962, he was a Boston native and newly minted lawyer, inspired by then-President John F. Kennedy to ask: “what can I do for my country?” His answer: prove how local registrars were keeping blacks, who already couldn’t eat or wash alongside whites, from voting, too.

The numbers pointed to trouble. Only 12 of the 7,500 African-Americans in Forrest County , Miss., were registered to vote, Martin said. But proving discrimination would require finding witnesses, getting a trial judgment and documenting violations. His efforts marked an important front in a battle that had volunteers from around the country supporting blacks on the ground in Mississippi as they sought the vote, according to Tufts University historian Peniel Joseph  .

Activists were “bringing in the Justice Department and bringing in white supporters for both political help and political cover,” said Joseph, author of Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama (Basic Civitas, 2010)  . “The feeling always was that if you brought more white people in [as supporters], you were reducing the chances of violence. And in a lot of ways, that was true.”

When Martin has addressed local groups, such as the League of Women’s Voters of Wellesley , he’s often emphasized the importance of ordinary citizens giving personal accounts of injustice they’ve encountered. His Hattiesburg case of United States v. Theron Lynd relied on testimony from educated blacks who’d reportedly flunked registrar Lynd’s literacy test, which involved a subjective interpretation of Mississippi‘s constitution.

Others, however, regard Martin as a role model in his own right. He didn’t ponder the dangers of working in Mississippi at the time, he said, because he just focused on doing his job. But his work was nonetheless personally risky and courageous, according to Shawn MacMaster , a member of the Melrose Human Rights Commission, which is co-sponsoring the MLK Jr. dinner with six other organizations.

“The accomplishments of footsoldiers sometimes can be lost,” MacMaster said. “He’s a good example of somebody who made very significant contributions, who was not on the forefront, but who played an important role in impacting change.”

Martin’s account also helps complete popular understandings of the civil rights era, according to Barbara Flannery of Weston  . Her late husband, J. Harold Flannery Jr. , worked with Martin in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division  . As important as grassroots activism was at this time, she recalled, the process of getting results hinged on securing support from sympathetic workers within the federal government.

“There were people like Gordon and my husband who had a commitment to make sure all Americans had a right to vote, and particularly African-Americans,” Flannery said. “They made it possible for this to happen.”

When Martin’s story gets a platform tomorrow in Melrose, it could sound to some like a tale from a distant place and time with little bearing on present-day conditions. But observers say the battle for voting rights is far from finished, even here in Massachusetts.

Allegations of Hispanic voter disenfranchisement have plagued Springfield in recent years, for example, according to Mark Brodin , a former civil rights attorney who’s now a professor at Boston College Law School in Newton. And in 2004, a federal court ruled that redistricting under former House Speaker Thomas Finneran had violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by discriminating against black voters.

Brodin added that 19 states have tried, albeit without much success, to pass voter identification laws that Brodin argues would unfairly burden minorities and low-income citizens who don’t have driver’s licenses.

“These were issues that we thought we put to rest decades ago, through tremendous sacrifice on the part of people” who were directly involved, Brodin said. “There is a compelling need to remind people of the history.”

Nor is the question of federal oversight for voting registration settled. In 2006, Congress authorized a provision in the Voting Rights Act requiring certain states and localities with histories of discrimination to get federal approval before changing their voting laws. But a case currently before the Supreme Court of the United States challenges that provision. That means the Court could strike it down and remove federal oversight requirements this year.

That prospect has local scholars, such as Robert McAndrews of Salem State University , concerned that gains made since the early 1960s could still be undone.

“These problems [of voter disenfranchisement] are not solved,” said McAndrews, a human rights attorney and professor of social work. “The cases still being brought forward in our courts show these problems are still very much alive. We have not resolved this, and I don’t think we ever really will.”

Martin shares concerns that voting rights face ongoing threats amidst voter identification initiatives, including some that have become law, such as Indiana’s fraud prevention law.

“This is a real made-up problem designed to scare off people from voting,” Martin said.

Since threats persist, Martin said, Americans must still be vigilant to defend their rights under the Constitution’s 15th amendment, adopted after the Civil War in 1870  . It grants all citizens the right to vote regardless of color or race and empowers Congress to enforce the article via appropriate legislation. But as history shows, rights mean little if citizens don’t actively claim them.

“The 15th Amendment just sat there for almost a century without being enforced,” Martin said. “There is a responsibility to deal with injustice.”