PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island civil rights icon Clifford R. Montiero marched for voting rights in Selma, Alabama, with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965. And now, with the 56th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act coming up in August, Montiero weighed in on recent attempts to pass more-restrictive voting laws in states such as Florida, Texas, and Georgia.
“The basic premise of our country is that people vote, people participate,” Montiero said on the latest episode of the Rhode Island Report podcast. “And now you’re putting up barriers. In 1965, I thought we would have ended that with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of ’65. But apparently there are some people who are still legally fighting (for) elimination of integration and elimination of people of color voting in this country. And they can’t win.”
Montiero, 83, retired to Florida a couple of years ago after decades of civil rights leadership in Rhode Island. He served as president of the old Congress of Racial Equality and was president of the Providence branch of the NAACP for a decade. He also worked as a Providence police officer and deputy sheriff.
In May, Montiero was honored as a “History Maker” by the Rhode Island Historical Society, which recognized him for “decades of taking a stand in Rhode Island, working tirelessly to increase access, opportunity and equality.”
On March 21, 1965, Montiero was assigned to provide security and handle communications with a two-way radio when MLK stepped across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma on a five-day march for voting rights.
During the podcast, Montiero described what he saw when he crossed that bridge.
“When you saw the Confederate flags, and you saw the families yelling and spitting at you and screaming,” he said, “I had not seen that kind of hatred.”
But he and others persevered, he added, “Because you believed in what you believed and you knew that every American should have the right to vote, that you had to risk your life for this.”
Montiero noted that America elected Barack Obama as its first Black president, and Kamala Harris is now the nation’s first Black and first Asian-American vice president. “Yes, we’ve made progress,” he said.
But, he said, “There’s hate in this country that I think has been always there but never as public as it is today. Hatred has been able to open up the door, put the light on it, and it’s saying, ‘You can’t kill us.’ Hatred is saying ‘We’re going to win.’ ”
Montiero recalled early lessons about racism and activism while growing up in Providence.
“I was like 5 years old and somebody called and said, ‘We don’t want you living on Roger Williams land,’ and they said the N-word,” he said. “And I said to my mother: What’s the N-word? I asked what the word meant. And my mother sat down and explained to me.”
Then, Montiero said, people dropped garbage in front of their house, so his mother went through the pile and found an envelope containing the name of the people who had dumped it there.
“She took my sister and I – she was like 14, 15 months younger than me – by the hand, walked up to the house, rang the doorbell and said, ‘This is your garbage. Don’t leave it in my house anymore,’ ” he said. “So my mother taught me direct action.”
Hear more by downloading the latest episode of Rhode Island Report, available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music, iHeartRadio, Google Podcasts, and other podcasting platforms, or listen in the player below: