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Ideas | David A. Moss and Dean Grodzins

A crisis for voting rights

Javier Olivares for the Boston Globe


What does it mean to have a right to vote? This week in Ideas, we re-examine a key episode during African-Americans’ struggle for enfranchisement in the 1960s. For a century, the Constitution explicitly guaranteed black voters’ right to take part in elections, but states across the South kept them out anyway. The widespread flouting of the Constitution raised a deeper question: How do words on paper gain force in the real world?

In this piece, David A. Moss and Dean Grodzins use Harvard Business School’s case method to frame the choices facing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Ala. The goal of this section of the Globe is to provoke discussion about civic norms, scientific theories, political presumptions, and other ideas that shape the daily news. The debate over access to the polls in 1965 reverberates in the present day. As some states consider easing their voter-registration procedures, others have imposed new requirements, such as voter ID cards; purged voter rolls; and reduced polling locations. In recent years, the Supreme Court has been grappling once again with how onerous a voting rule can be without running afoul of the Constitution.

As part of the HUBweek festival, Moss will lead an interactive public discussion of this case at Faneuil Hall on Wednesday, Oct. 10. Visit to register. We invite you to study the case and join the conversation.


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On Tuesday afternoon, March 9, 1965, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led more than 2,000 protesters on a march from Brown Chapel, an African Methodist Episcopal church in Selma, Ala., to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, spanning the Alabama River, a short distance away. He faced an agonizing decision about whether to defy a federal court order by crossing the bridge.

The 36-year-old Baptist minister and director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, or SCLC, had recently won the Nobel Peace Prize for his leadership of the civil rights movement in the United States. The movement aimed to overturn state laws and customs requiring racial segregation in the South, as well as state laws and practices that disenfranchised black voters there.


Central to King’s voting rights campaign was a series of nonviolent protest marches in Selma. On March 7, a Sunday, 600 well-dressed marchers left the Brown Chapel in two orderly lines, in defiance of an order from Governor George Wallace prohibiting the march. Their goal was the state capitol in Montgomery, fifty miles away. King had followed events from Atlanta, where he was preaching to his home church. When the marchers crossed the Pettus Bridge, they found their way blocked by Sheriff Jim Clark, his men, and state troopers. Instead of simply arresting the marchers, as expected, the lawmen assaulted the marchers with clubs, cattle prods, and tear gas. Television cameras had recorded everything. That evening all three national networks — ABC, NBC, and CBS — broadcast the footage.

By midnight King had announced that he would personally lead another march from Selma on Tuesday and asked “clergy of all faiths” to join him. The next day, Monday, an estimated 800 activists, many of them clergy and divinity students, both black and white, rushed to Selma by car, bus, and plane. Meanwhile, SCLC lawyers petitioned Alabama federal district judge Frank Johnson, seen as sympathetic to the civil rights movement, for an injunction to prevent state and local authorities from stopping the next march.

Judge Johnson refused to issue an injunction without a hearing, which he scheduled for Thursday, and instructed the SCLC to postpone the march. Also, President Lyndon Johnson let King know through intermediaries that he did not want him to march. King did not want to alienate the president, a critical ally, but King’s advisers told him that feelings were now running so high among his supporters in Selma that they might defy him if he tried to cancel or postpone the march. King decided to proceed with the march as planned.


On Monday night he spoke to a rally at Brown Chapel, celebrating the clergy who had just arrived in town and urging everyone to be brave the next day. Later, at the home of a Selma supporter where he was staying, he received a midnight phone call from US Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, who urged him not to march. King had slept only a few hours when he was awakened, at dawn, by news that two of President Johnson’s men were at the front door.

They informed him that Judge Johnson had issued an injunction against the march. King had previously defied the injunctions of state and local judges, but never of a federal judge. The modern civil rights movement had always depended on the support of the federal courts. One of President Johnson’s representatives suggested that King might not violate the terms of the injunction if he led marchers to the bridge but then, instead of crossing it, turned them around and led them back to the chapel.

Hours later, at the chapel, King told the crowd to “put on their walking shoes” and started them toward the bridge. There, as before, the sheriff’s men and troopers waited. According to at least one report, marchers began singing a freedom song, “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ’Round.” The TV cameras were again rolling. King now had to decide whether to try to turn the march around at the bridge, or to push forward as his fellow marchers were expecting.


Javier Olivares for the Boston Globe

A century before the events in Selma, in 1865, the Union won the Civil War, and the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, abolishing slavery. With the 1867 Reconstruction Act, Radical Republicans forced the former rebel states to write new constitutions that eliminated race restrictions on voting. In 1868 and 1870, respectively, the states ratified two more Republican-sponsored amendments to the US Constitution: the 14th, which declared everyone born in the United States to be citizens, entitled to “the equal protection of the laws,” and the 15th, which declared that the “right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Black voters went on to form the backbone of the Republican Party in the South.

Attempting to thwart these changes, many Southern Democrats formed vigilante groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, which in 1869–70 began a campaign of terror against Republican officials and voters, white as well as black, across the South. Between 1869 and 1877, Southern Democrats took control of every former rebel state. They enacted laws that transferred power to appoint election supervisors from county governments to state officials, which effectively put white Democrats in charge of supervising all elections, even in majority-black Republican districts. Electoral fraud in these districts became endemic. Democratic operatives stuffed ballot boxes with fake Democratic ballots, while destroying Republican ballots after they were cast or, in some cases, simply tallying them as Democratic. Formerly solid Republican districts crumbled.

Meanwhile, a growing number of Northern Republican elites — overwhelmingly white, Protestant, and middle class or affluent — had grown skeptical about the value of universal suffrage. Northern cities were experiencing explosive growth, prompted by industrialization and the migration of millions of southern and eastern Europeans to the United States. Most of these immigrants voted Democratic. Northern Republicans began enacting laws restricting immigrant suffrage in their home states by various means, including poll taxes and literacy tests. They therefore could not easily oppose Southern Democrats using similar techniques against black Republicans.


Southern Democrats launched a campaign to “eliminate” the black vote in 1889–90, starting with new election laws in Tennessee, Arkansas, and Florida. Across the South, state constitutional conventions were soon called — specifically to effect disenfranchisement. Because measures explicitly banning black voting would contradict the language of the 15th Amendment, Southern states devised voting requirements that were nominally color-blind but in effect discriminated based on race. For example, the requirement that registered voters pay a poll tax to stay on the voting rolls disproportionately affected black citizens, because they were, on average, significantly poorer than white citizens. Also, as black illiteracy was higher than white, new literacy requirements on voting hit African-Americans hard.

No matter how cleverly these measures were weighted against black voters, however, they inevitably disenfranchised many white voters as well. Democrats therefore devised schemes to protect white voters. Among these were “grandfather clauses.” Louisiana enacted the first in 1898, and it was imitated, with variants, in many other states. The Louisiana version exempted anyone descended from a man who could vote on Jan. 1, 1867 (when the electorate was all white), from the new literacy and poll tax requirements.

One of the most effective methods of protecting white voters and discouraging black ones was to give election registrars, all white Democrats, wide discretion over how to do their jobs. For instance, registrars were asked to ensure that voters were literate enough to “understand” the privileges and nature of citizenship, but they were allowed to improvise their tests and standards on a case-by-case basis. Such improvisation proved highly discriminatory.

Black Republicans repeatedly challenged the new registration procedures in federal court. In 1903 the Supreme Court ruled that, if the registration requirements were unconstitutional, then the solution was not for courts to force blacks to be registered under them; rather, black citizens should seek “political” relief from the Alabama legislature or Congress. With no realistic possibility of obtaining such relief, black leaders likened the ruling to the pro-slavery Dred Scott decision of 1857.

The disenfranchisement movement devastated the black electorate. In Virginia, the number of black voters was reduced from 147,000 to 21,000; in Georgia, from 68,000 to 11,285; in Louisiana, from 130,344 to 5,320; in the fourteen “Black Belt” counties of Alabama, from 79,311 to 1,081. In 1893, a few years after disenfranchisement in Mississippi, where nearly 748,000 black people lived, only 8,965 black voters remained.

The capstone of disenfranchisement was the “white primary.” Between 1902 and 1908, Democrats in most Southern states instituted direct primary systems, but did not allow blacks to vote in them. Democrats claimed that their white primaries were not inconsistent with the 15th Amendment, because it only guaranteed the right of African-Americans to vote in general elections, not to participate in the private, internal administration of a political party. As the Republican Party was now moribund in the South, and Democratic nominees always won general elections there, white primaries ensured that even those few black people who still voted would never affect an election outcome.

In the same era as disenfranchisement, Southern states legally entrenched racial segregation, a system that came to be known, after a black minstrel character, as “Jim Crow.” In 1890, Southern Democratic state legislatures began enacting “separate coach” laws, authorizing or requiring cities to segregate streetcars. Black leaders launched a series of suits in federal court, arguing that Jim Crow streetcars violated the equal protection provisions of the 14th Amendment. The US Supreme Court rejected this claim in 1896 in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, ruling that the “enforced separation of the two races” did not stamp “the colored race with a badge of inferiority” and that “separate but equal” facilities were therefore constitutional. In reality, “colored” facilities under Jim Crow were always inferior to “white” ones. Moreover, Jim Crow practices soon went beyond the law but were routinely enforced as if they were law.

Although the Southern laws and customs enshrining segregation and disenfranchisement remained solidly in place over the first half of the 20th century, many African-Americans themselves moved north, where they often found greater economic opportunities and could vote. Between 1910 and 1960, the share of black Americans living in the South fell from 89 percent to 60 percent. Their political allegiances also began to change. During the Great Depression, the New Deal programs and pro-labor policies of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a Democrat, drew poor and working-class voters to his party, African-Americans among them. Many blacks continued to vote Republican, however, and by the 1940s the two major parties recognized that in a close presidential race, black voters could swing key states. Partly as a result, both parties began to appeal to the black vote by announcing support for civil rights. Meanwhile, during World War II, the idea that black soldiers fighting for their country were denied suffrage at home because of their race grew unpalatable to many Americans, especially because the United States was battling racist Nazi Germany.

Ready to take advantage of this shift in mood was an incipient civil rights movement. Its most conspicuous organization was the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Founded in 1909, the NAACP became best known for undertaking carefully publicized legal challenges to segregation and disenfranchisement in the federal courts. It scored an early triumph in 1915, when the Supreme Court ruled that “grandfather clauses” violated the 15th Amendment. Another major victory came in 1944, when the court declared that the 15th Amendment covered primaries and therefore that the “white primary” was unconstitutional. The NAACP scored its most celebrated victory in May 1954, when it helped convince the Supreme Court to overturn the doctrine of “separate but equal.” In Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the justices decided unanimously that legally mandated racial segregation of public schools violated black citizens’ 14th Amendment right to equal protection and that “separate educational facilities” were “inherently unequal.” The ruling sent shock waves around the country. It also brought greater coverage of civil rights issues in both the American and international press.

In 1956, the civil rights story of the year was a black boycott of segregated buses in Montgomery, Ala. The boycott followed the arrest of Rosa Parks, a black community leader and secretary of the local NAACP office, who on Dec. 1, 1955, refused to yield her seat in the “colored section” of a city bus to a white passenger when the white section was full. Local black leaders created the Montgomery Improvement Association, or MIA, to run the boycott and chose as its president a 26-year-old Baptist minister, Martin Luther King Jr., an Atlanta native who had just received a doctorate in theology from Boston University and had only recently settled in Montgomery.

As the boycott wore on, King’s stature grew. Civil rights activists around the country began to see King’s nonviolent, mass-movement approach to civil rights as an appealing alternative to the legal strategy so long pursued by the NAACP and — most strikingly — as a way to turn even poor, nonvoting black Americans into significant political actors.

Initially, King and the MIA did not ask for an end to segregated buses, but rather for reforms. Because the city refused to negotiate, however, and even tried to jail King and the MIA leadership, the fight ultimately became about segregation itself. The NAACP and federal courts got involved. Finally, on Dec. 20, 1956, federal injunctions arrived ordering bus integration.

The Montgomery bus boycott made King a national figure. In February 1957 he helped to create what became the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, with the idea of organizing black ministers for civil rights action.

Javier Olivares for the Boston Globe

On Feb. 1, 1960, King resigned his pulpit in Montgomery; he was moving to Atlanta, in part because the SCLC was headquartered there. That same day four freshmen from a black college in Greensboro, N.C., walked to the local Woolworth’s department store and asked to be served at the “whites only” lunch counter. Their protest launched the student “sit-in” movement against segregation. Student activists soon formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, which focused on civil disobedience. When activists with the group started a sit-in campaign in Atlanta, to integrate the snack bar at a prestigious downtown department store, they asked King to join them. On Oct. 19, 1960, he did so, deliberately seeking arrest for the first time. He and the students were convicted of trespassing and refused bail, and he spent his first night in jail. Public attention and protests mounted. Alarmed, the mayor of Atlanta brokered a deal to drop charges against the protesters and form a biracial commission to make recommendations on desegregating downtown businesses.

This seemed like a victory for the activists until the state police unexpectedly transferred King, in shackles, from the county jail to a maximum security prison. Apparently, by getting arrested in Atlanta, he had violated a prior agreement with a judge arising from a dispute over a traffic ticket. State authorities only released him after a phone call from Robert Kennedy, the brother and campaign manager of Democratic Senator John F. Kennedy, then running for president. This successful intervention won John Kennedy a late surge of black voter support, which some credited with helping him win a narrow victory in the November 1960 election.

On May 4, 1961, a group of activists left Washington, D.C., on two regularly scheduled buses, one Greyhound and one Trailways, for a “Freedom Ride.” They aimed to reach New Orleans on May 17, the seventh anniversary of the Brown decision. At each stop, the riders planned to “challenge . . . every form of segregation met by the bus passenger.”

On May 14, mobs led by the KKK attacked the riders near Anniston, Ala. One mob burned the Greyhound bus, nearly killing the passengers; another mob attacked the Trailways bus, brutally beating Freedom Riders aboard. The Anniston police did not intervene. The Trailways driver then drove the injured riders to Birmingham, where another Klan mob attacked them in front of reporters. Images of the burning bus and the bleeding Freedom Riders got out and appeared on front pages around the world.

The crisis produced by the Freedom Rides influenced King’s thinking about civil disobedience. He had viewed it primarily as a form of religious witness and personal sacrifice, but as he explained in a letter in October 1961, “Public relations is a very necessary part of any protest of civil disobedience. . . . In effect, in the absence of justice in the established courts of the region, nonviolent protesters are asking for a hearing in the court of world opinion.”

King struggled with how to apply this lesson. In 1961 and 1962, the SCLC concentrated its efforts on supporting a desegregation campaign started by SNCC in the small city of Albany, Ga. Activists launched boycotts of buses and downtown stores and developed a new tactic: mass marches leading to mass arrests. Yet Albany had no active KKK chapter to incite violence, and Albany officials took care to de-escalate tensions the civil-rights movement sought to create. Perhaps as a result, the Albany campaign never generated a sense of national crisis.

Seeing Albany as a major setback, King and others at the SCLC decided they must, for the first time, instigate their own mass civil disobedience campaign in a place of their own choosing. In January 1963 they picked Birmingham. The leaders of the SCLC thought a victory there would resonate nationally. Alabama had just elected George Wallace as governor. In his inaugural address, he would declare, “segregation now . . . segregation tomorrow . . . segregation forever.” Birmingham, meanwhile, had received national press attention as a bastion of violent segregationism. The KKK there had subjected African-Americans to beatings, shootings, even (in one case) castration, and they resorted so often to dynamite that they won for the city the nickname “Bombingham.”

Fierce support for segregation was also embodied in Birmingham’s city police commissioner, “Bull” Connor. First elected in 1937, he had been forced him from office in 1952 by revelations of personal and departmental “incompetence, moral turpitude, and corruption.” Yet after the Brown ruling, Connor, who was allied with the KKK, rode back into power amid a white backlash. Leaders of the SCLC worried about the violence Connor might inflict on demonstrators, but decided he made a “perfect adversary” because “he wanted his name in the paper” and could be provoked into the kind of dramatic confrontation civil rights activists never got in Albany.

King launched the Birmingham campaign in April 1963 with the goal of desegregating facilities and employment downtown. The press paid little attention. The tide turned only when the SCLC began recruiting black children. Thousands of children, mostly teens but some as young as 6, responded to the SCLC call to leave school and go to jail for freedom. The first children’s march took place on May 2. By nightfall 600 were in custody, packing the city jail. The following day Connor, unable to make further arrests and struggling to keep the marchers out of downtown, unleashed police dogs and water cannons on them. Pictures of children being mauled and blasted appeared on television and on newspaper front pages around the world.

The demonstrations did not let up. After round-the-clock negotiations with the Kennedy administration, local black leaders, and the SCLC, Birmingham business leaders agreed to a tentative desegregation plan.

The Birmingham protests — along with the violent reaction from law enforcement — deeply affected national public sentiment. King announced during this period that the SCLC was considering a march on Washington, and on June 11 President Kennedy pledged in a nationally televised address that he would propose a new civil rights law.

The SCLC’s planned march on Washington now became a march for the civil rights bill. On Aug. 28, 250,000 gathered at the Lincoln Memorial and heard King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which was televised nationally. Opponents in the US House of Representatives bottled up the bill in committee until tragedy rocked the nation on Nov. 22, 1963: the assassination of President Kennedy. The new president, Lyndon Johnson, announced that Congress must enact the slain president’s proposed civil rights bill as a tribute to his memory. Johnson pushed the bill over one legislative hurdle after another, including a 57-day Senate filibuster by Southern Democrats and some Republicans. King was invited to the White House to watch Johnson sign the bill into law on July 2, 1964. That fall, King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

The Civil Rights Act did little, however, to address voting rights. Immediately after the 1964 presidential election, which President Johnson won in a landslide, King announced a new campaign against disenfranchisement. The SCLC decided to launch it in Selma, the seat of Dallas County in Alabama. There were 15,000 black residents of voting age in Dallas County, a majority of the adult population, but fewer than 200 registered black voters. The local White Citizen’s Council, closely affiliated with the city Democratic machine, effectively controlled city politics. There was an active KKK “klavern” in the area, and the county sheriff, Jim Clark, who liked to wear quasi-military uniforms and a lapel button stating his views on integration — “NEVER” — was known for his quick, violent temper.

The Selma campaign began in January 1965. The movement soon took off, with mass meetings, mass marches to the county courthouse, protest marches in surrounding towns, and hundreds of arrests. King himself was jailed for three days.

Wilson Baker, the public safety director in the city of Selma, tried to ease tensions where possible. But Clark, the county sheriff, continually frustrated these efforts. Baker, for example, allowed protesters to march unmolested through the streets of Selma, refusing to enforce a local judge’s injunction on the grounds that it was being appealed in federal court. When the marchers got to the county courthouse, however, which was Clark’s domain, the sheriff and his men beat and arrested them. Clark played a key role in orchestrating the assault on protesters at the Pettus Bridge on March 7. Clark’s brutality had outraged King’s supporters, alarmed President Johnson, and brought national media attention to the voting rights issue.

Now, on March 9, as King led marchers back to the Pettus Bridge, he had to decide whether to try to turn the march around before crossing, or to try to cross the bridge as his supporters fervently expected and wanted, but against President Johnson’s wishes and in violation, for the first time in his career, of a federal court order. With much at stake, the time for a decision was upon him.

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David A. Moss will lead an interactive public discussion of this case on Oct. 10 at Faneuil Hall as part of HUBweek. You can RSVP at Here are a few questions to get the conversation going:

• Given the 14th and 15th amendments, which guaranteed “equal protection of the laws” and voting rights irrespective of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” how did racial segregation and large-scale disenfranchisement of black citizens become entrenched in the South?

• How do you explain the timing of the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown decision, which declared that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal”? Could this decision have come 20 years earlier? Or 50 years earlier?

• By early 1965, what was the SCLC’s strategy for securing comprehensive voting rights legislation? If you had been advising the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at the time, would you have endorsed this strategy or recommended a different one?

• Imagine you had been marching beside King on March 9, 1965, and that he privately told you about the turnaround option. If he had asked for your advice, what would you have recommended?

David A. Moss, a Harvard Business School professor, is the author of “Democracy: A Case Study.” Dean Grodzins is a senior researcher at Harvard Business School.

This article is an abridged version of the Harvard Business School case “Martin Luther King and the Struggle for Black Voting Rights,” written by David A. Moss and Dean Grodzins. © 2017 President and Fellows of Harvard College, [product #N9-716-042]. All rights reserved. All requests to republish this content should be sent to