Voting rights marcher recalls being bludgeoned and hearing fatal gunshot during pivotal day of protests

MARION, Ala. (AP) — Della Simpson Maynor was just 14 when she marched for the vote in her hometown of Marion, Alabama. His most distinct memory of that evening is of police attacking protesters.

She remembers an officer, on horseback, swinging at his head with a club.

“I remember going up with my elbow, trying to protect my head,” she said, pointing to where the club landed on her arm. “They didn’t care who they hit – children, women. I remember a lady, she was pregnant.

The February 18, 1965 march ended in the assassination of a youth activist and sparked events that galvanized support for Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act later that year. .

The group had gathered to march from Zion Methodist Church to the nearby jail to protest the arrest of James Orange, a leader of the civil rights movement. There was a rumor that white people in town planned to lynch Orange that night to send a message.

Maynor had made his way near the start of the line, but the party had only gone a few hundred feet.

“All of a sudden there were police everywhere,” she said. “They just came out of the dark.”

She remembers seeing a minister kneel down to pray.

“They told him to get up, unlawful assembly. You must disperse. And of course he continued to pray. And that wasn’t good enough, so they hit him with that club,” she said. “I started trying to retreat, but it was too late because they had started to rush us.”

Maynor ran and squatted next to the church, where she was found and beaten. She and others fled to Mack’s Café, a restaurant that was part of a black business district – businesses in the town square were for whites only. A policeman came in and ordered them to leave.

Maynor then heard the sound of a gunshot. A local church deacon, Jimmie Lee Jackson, trying to protect his grandfather from police inside the cafe, was shot by a state trooper. He died eight days later.

Jackson’s death became the catalyst for a march the following month in Selma, when participants were attacked by police as they attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The day became known as “Bloody Sunday” and images of the violence galvanized support for the passage of the Voting Rights Act later that year.

“It was after Jimmie’s death and all the attention to this area that they actually tried to do something about the Voting Rights Act,” Maynor said.

At the time, she thought the fight was over because “we immediately started electing people of color to key positions in this city.”

But while events in Alabama helped give birth to the voting rights law, court cases originating in the state have led to its steady erosion over the years.

A U.S. Supreme Court case involving a suburban Alabama county ended the requirement for several states with a history of voter discrimination, mostly in the South, to seek federal approval before change electoral laws and procedures.

This summer, the court is expected to decide whether the voting rights law will be strengthened or further eroded in another case in Alabama.

“I’ve seen a lot of changes,” said Maynor, now 74. “But I’ve seen a lot of things stay exactly the same because the way of thinking hasn’t changed.”

While circumstances are very different nearly 60 years after the Voting Rights Act took effect, Maynor sees echoes of the past. As a child, she attended separate schools, waiting for the morning to catch an old bus while white children, driving a new one, drove past her shouting racial slurs.

Today, white politicians are trying to put limits on how race and the civil rights era are taught in schools. The vast majority of people “who hold the power and make the most important decisions” in Alabama are white, she said.

“There’s a struggle that always had to be fought,” Maynor said. “You always hope the things you’ve done will make a difference in the long run, but to see where we are in this country (it’s) pretty much the same place we were in 1965, and we’re leading the same battle. “

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Fields reported in Washington.

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The Associated Press’s coverage of race and voting receives support from the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation. Learn more about AP’s Democratic Initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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