Is this America?

Published November 2, 2004 1:47PM (EST)

"This just in. Florida reinstates slavery!" When Stephen Colbert made that announcement on "The Daily Show" Monday night it didn't sound like a joke as much as a confirmation of what many of us were already thinking.

But we don't need to go all the way back to the Civil War to find a parallel for the plans to keep black Americans from voting this year. Forty years will do. In 1964 there was no Voting Rights Act. Lyndon Johnson had not yet appeared before Congress and, borrowing the words of the civil rights movement, announced to America "We shall overcome." There was still routine harassment of African-American voters at the polls.

That's the function an Arizona judge named William Rehnquist fulfilled for Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election, a few years before he would lie to Congress about it during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings. And in 1964 Fannie Lou Hamer, delegate to the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, addressed the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City in an attempt to seat the black delegates denied access by that state's Dixiecrat machine.

It's the question Hamer asked during that address -- "Is this America?" -- that has hovered over the entire Bush regime from the moment that Rehnquist, in the apotheosis of the role he played in Arizona in 1964, led the Supreme Court in denying the rights of voters and appointing the president. And it's the question that haunts the polling places today.

Last week on the New York City subway a young African-American girl of about 18 told me she approved of my Kerry pin, and excitedly told her girlfriend that Kerry was who she planned to vote for. Her friend, another black girl of about the same age, started asking her questions like "Who was running?" and "There's a Republican and a Democrat, right?

I knew I couldn't play the benevolent white father, knew that the quickest way to sound like a pompous ass was to tell her about all the black Americans who'd been beaten or died on the domestic battlefields of the 1960s so she could vote, tell her that she owed it to them to know what was happening in her country. So I didn't say anything. But it was Fannie Lou Hamer I was thinking about.

Her question -- "Is this America?" -- sits like a rock in the middle of all American politics and American history since she asked it in the summer of 1964. The challenge today is to meet those who have answered her question with a strong, clear "No" with a stronger, clearer "Yes." Here's hoping the country Fannie Lou Hamer fought for proves worthy of her.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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