Baltimore church turns to lessons from historic Selma march to encouraging voting

Organizer: "People bled and died for this, so how dare we sit down on our vote."

Evangeline Keita saw the white officers beating protesters in Alabama on television in 1965, and she watched it from Baltimore with teenage indifference.

Sunday, she watched the struggle again in "Selma," the Hollywood account of the Voting Rights Act, after time and age had afforded her perspective.

"That history is real and it's relevant today," said the 66-year-old Baltimore retiree.

In an election year in which Baltimoreans will elect a new mayor and new City Council members, churches are organizing to register voters. And Keita, a retired social worker, led weekend efforts at Mount Lebanon Baptist Church.

Organizers registered 62 people to vote at Mondawmin Mall on Saturday. On Sunday, in addition to registering voters, they played the film "Selma" in the church to remind local African-American families of the hard-earned right to cast a ballot.

Nearly two-thirds of the city's residents are African-American.

About 35 percent of registered voters in Baltimore cast a ballot in November 2014, a turnout lower than in any Maryland county.

"We want to teach people to show the history and the fight behind the Voting Rights Act," Keita said. "People bled and died for this, so how dare we sit down on our vote?"

Some 600 people, mostly African-Americans, marched from a church in Selma, Ala., 51 years ago toward the state capital of Montgomery to protest the literacy tests and the barriers that kept African-Americans from voting in the South.

When they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma on March 7, they were blocked by state troopers and sheriff's deputies and ordered to disband.

They refused and were beaten with nightsticks.

Millions of Americans watched on television as the marchers were beaten in clouds of tear gas. The day would become known as "Bloody Sunday."

Two days later, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led a second march. They were blocked again and they turned back.

When they marched a third time, there were African-Americans, whites and others — nearly 25,000 in all, according to the National Park Service.

They marched and sang "We Shall Overcome." Within months, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act to ban discrimination at the polls.

The president addressed African-Americans in a speech.

"You must register," Johnson said. "You must vote. You must learn, so your choice advances your interest and the interest of our beloved nation. Your future, and your children's future, depend upon it."

He called the vote "the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice."

In Baltimore, Keita has voted in every election for four decades, except one: 1980, when she and her husband spent the year in Africa. When her two sons turned 18, years ago, she tucked voter registration cards inside their birthday cards.

"This election has really piqued interest," she said. "We have a big turnover in the city. It's more important now than ever."

Several mayoral candidates visited the voter signup on Saturday. Some judges arrived Sunday for the film.

They watched alongside 67-year-old Georgia Garrett-Moore. She was born in Tampa, Fla., and remembers the segregated gas stations of her childhood. They watched alongside Baltimore librarian Torrion Carter, whose mother and aunts marched with King to Washington.

About 30 people watched the film. The pews at Mount Lebanon Baptist Church were mostly empty, but Keita wasn't discouraged.

She plans to return next Sunday, as she does every Sunday, an extra voter application tucked inside her Bible case.

tprudente@baltsun.com

To register

Members of Mount Lebanon Baptist Church near Mondawmin will register voters on Sundays until the election. Or go to elections.maryland.gov.

The deadline to register for the primary election is April 5; the primary is April 26.

The deadline to register for the general election is Oct. 18; the general election is Nov. 8.

Families may register to vote before and after the 8 and 11 a.m. church services at 2812 Reisterstown Road.

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