Have we changed enough? Kwartler ’11 on the Voting Rights Act

By Zach Kwartler ’11

An assignment in my freshman writing seminar led me to spend the last two years teaching 11th-grade U.S. history at Holly Springs High School in the northwest corner of Mississippi. To try to make history come to life for my students, I showed them two black-and-white photographs of segregated classrooms from the 1940s. My class of 22 African-American students and one white student stared at the images with blank expressions. “That’s just like Holly Springs and Marshall Academy,” one of my students said, referring to the local public and private schools.

Everyone knows about Mississippi’s civil rights history and the progress that the state has made. In the past 50 years, Mississippi has overcome the violent integration of Ole Miss, the assassination of Medgar Evers, and the murder of three Northern civil rights activists during Freedom Summer. The Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder to invalidate Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act was based on the progress that Mississippi has made in the past 50 years. The Supreme Court is right. Our country has changed. But I find myself asking: “Have we changed enough?”

On the 50th anniversary of James Meredith’s integration of Ole Miss, I took my top U.S. history student to a speech by Harry Bellafonte at the University of Mississippi’s Gertrude Ford Auditorium. The program started with an address from Kimberly Dandridge, the first African-American student body president in the history of Ole Miss. Then, in his keynote address, Bellafonte described driving at midnight on a pitch-black road between Greenwood and Indianola in the 1960s, trailed by a KKK-controlled police car. Bellafonte said that he knew if he went one mile over the speed limit, he would be pulled over and at best would have to pay a large fine.

When Bellafonte’s speech ended, my student remarked, “I’m grateful for the sacrifices my grandparents’ generation made, so that I can get an education. I don’t think most people my age understand what they had to go through.”

In other regards, however, towns like Holly Springs still reflect the dark civil rights history that Bellafonte described in his speech. Even though Holly Springs was 23 percent white and 76 percent African-American as of the 2000 census, the public school where I taught has, on average, one white student per grade. The rest of the town’s white children attend Marshall Academy, the local private school that was founded following the Supreme Court’s order in Green v. County School Board of New Kent County to accelerate the pace of desegregation. The walls of JB’s, which is the most popular restaurant on the town square, are still decorated with pictures of Nathaniel Bedford Forrest and Confederate flags.

Last year, I asked a veteran African-American teacher who was born before desegregation in Holly Springs how much the town had changed in the past 50 years. He responded, “It’s about 20 percent better than it was in 1970.”

With less federal oversight, I am concerned that Holly Springs and other towns with a similar history of segregation will reverse the gains they have made since the passage of the Voting Rights Act. If this happens, it will be clear, in contrast to the opinion of John Roberts and the Supreme Court, that we have not changed enough.


Zach Kwartler ’11 majored in history at Princeton before entering the Teach for America program.

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