Connecting Selma and Newtown

By Story of America Team

Selma, Alabama is, triumphantly, associated with voting rights. Newtown, Connecticut is, tragically, associated with gun violence. Tonight we connect the issues thanks to our special guests, Chellette and Darren, on The Middle Ground.



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From the Selma, AL, Chellette Henderson is a retired aerospace purchasing agent who returned to her childhood home after her husband and her mother passed away. Having participated in the historic voting rights marches in Selma 48 years ago, she is getting reacquainted with Alabama after raising a family, making a career, and helping to establish MLK Day, in Mesa, Arizona. 

From Newtown, CT, Darren Wagner will make his second appearance on The Middle Ground, and his first since he launched the Newton Action Alliance. He is a former Deputy Sheriff who has become a leading voice on the issue of gun violence after he and his family were shaken by the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre.

CLICK HERE to listen to archived recording of Darren and Chellette interviewed via Coffee Party Radio by filmmaker Eric Byler.

More about our visit to Chellette’s family farm:

Has the South Changed? Justice Roberts made this claim while implying the Supreme Court wants to undermine the Voting Rights Act. In this video, Annabel Park asks Chellette Henderson of Selma, Alabama if Roberts has a point.

Annabel Park and I were invited by Chellette Henderson to stay on her historic family farm just south of Selma, AL. We were treated to an old fashioned country breakfast, a tour of the property, and a days worth of captivating and illuminating conversation.

Chellette Henderson is a retired aerospace executive who has returned to her childhood home just south of Selma, AL not long after the passing of her husband of 37 years, to care for her dying mother. With her mother’s passing in Nov. 2011, Chellette decided to make her home on the farm where she says, as a girl, she spent much of her time reading.

Having participated in the famous voting rights marches in Selma 48 years ago, Chellette was a leader in Mesa, AZ in the struggle to properly observe Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Now, she is working as a substitute teacher and volunteering her time to give something back to the community that raised her.

The morning began with coffee (Annabel’s favorite thing) and the question , “Has the South Changed?” This was in reference to a claim made by John Roberts, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Roberts made the comment in the context of a Supreme Court challenge to the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Selma, which is 20 miles north of Chellette’s family farm, is where the Voting Rights Act was born, in many respects, on Bloody Sunday in 1965, when law enforcement officials used violence to turn back African Americans and other advocates for equality, attempting to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The brutality of that day sparked a national outcry. President Lyndon Johnson called a joint session of Congress to call for the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the rest was history.

Now the legacy of the Voting Rights Act hangs in the balance of the narrowly divided U.S. Supreme Court. In Calera, AL, about 60 miles north of the farm, white city council members and the town mayor redistricted the city in order to remove the lone African American councilman, Earnest Montgomery (we interviewed Councilman Montgomery, video coming soon). Under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, the redistricting ploy was declared unconstitutional before election day. The city ignored the Justice Department and held the election anyway, in which Montgomery lost by a handful of votes.

The Justice Department nullified the election and ordered a new election with districts that did not unlawfully dilute the African American voting population by distributing them into multiple districts. In that election, Montgomery regained his seat on the city council, where he serves today.

But, the county of Shelby decided to challenge the Justice Department’s decision, and with it Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires pre-clearance for new legislation that impacts the voting rights of minorities — but only in states and smaller jurisdictions with a history of abridging or denying voting rights. Opponents of Section 5 argue that it is unfair to apply Section 5 to some areas but not others, especially in light of the fact that controversial voter suppression tactics are now more common in swing states (states where presidential elections are closely contested) than in the South. Despite the rash of voter ID laws, limitations on early voting, hurdles for voter registration, and racially-targeted redistricting triggered by the 2008 election, Shelby County, AL has asked that that Section 5 be struck down entirely, rather than applied to all 50 states.

The Supreme Court is decided to rule on the case in June of 2013.