Retracing the Struggle

On Saturday, October 29, 2005, the year’s first snow fell on Boston. As The Boston Globe reported, “Anyone who wanted a good Halloween scare only had to look out the window: snow, in October.” Three hundred people braved the nasty weather to attend the Foundation’s second annual fall symposium, Retracing the Struggle: The Legacy of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, hosted by Boston College.

The right to vote is precious, almost sacred. It is the most powerful nonviolent instrument we have in a democratic society.

— Congressman John Lewis

                         We're here today not just to commemorate history; we're here to complete the unfinished history of our country.
— Senator John Kerry

The occasion was both historic and timely, as it marked the 40th anniversary of what many legal scholars consider to be one of the best crafted and most broadly supported pieces of legislation ever enacted by the United States Congress. Provisions of the law are up for renewal in 2007. The afternoon featured three interrelated conversations with writers, scholars, civil rights activists, and public officials:

  • “From Civil Rights to Voting Rights: The History”— with Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Taylor Branch; Alex Keyssar, Matthew W. Stirling, Jr., Professor of History and Social Policy, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University; and former U.S. Senator Harris Wofford; James Fallows, National Correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, moderator.
  • “The Social and Political Impact of the Voting Rights Act”— with Abigail Thernstrom, Senior Fellow, Manhattan Institute for Policy Research; and Patricia Williams, James L. Dohr Professor of Law, Columbia Law School; Alan Wolfe, Director of Boston College’s Center for Religion and American Public Life, moderator.
  • “Voting Rights and Electoral Politics Today” — with Wade Henderson, Executive Director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights; Roger Clegg, President and General Counsel, Center for Equal Opportunity; and Congressman John Lewis (D-GA); Newsweek Senior Editor Mark Starr, moderator.

Streaming video of the entire program is online at

Summaries of panelists’ opening remarks are available online at:

coverThat evening the Foundation held its annual benefit dinner, with Taylor Branch as the keynote speaker. Emceed by James Fallows, the dinner was a farewell celebration of The Atlantic Monthly, which moved to Washington, D.C. in January after 149 years in Boston. For the occasion, the magazine published a handsome and substantial commemorative pamphlet entitled The Struggle for Civil Rights. It includes Julia Ward Howe’s poem “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” (1862), Frederick Douglass’s “Appeal to Congress for Impartial Suffrage” (1867), Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (1963), and other historic articles from The Atlantic’s archives.

Sunday brought blue skies, temperatures in the 60s, and bright sunshine—the perfect backdrop for Part Two of “Retracing the Struggle,”a symbolic re-enactment of the civil rights march that Martin Luther King, Jr. led in Boston in 1965. Georgia Congressman John Lewis, a leader of the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, reminded people gathered at the First Church in Roxbury that “the Voting Rights Act didn’t just happen…. The Congress didn’t just wake up one day and say we’re going to give you the Voting Rights Act. The President didn’t wake up one day and say we’re going to give you the Voting Rights Act. We had to struggle.”march photo, courtesy of The Boston Globe

By the time the marchers walked the three miles through the South End to the Boston Common, the Globe estimated that the crowd had reached 5,000. Speakers at the rally included Dr. Virgil Woods, who organized the 1965 Boston protest; Deval Patrick, former U.S. Deputy Attorney General, Civil Rights Division; and Rev. William Sinkford, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, who invoked the sacrifices many UU ministers made 40 years ago.

Coordinated by Ron Bell, founder of Dunk the Vote, and supported by more than 40 different community-based organizations, the march drew a diverse group of participants—young and old, black and white, male and female. When the weekend was over, a tired but proud John Sieracki, the Foundation’s Director of Development, who spent countless hours helping to organize the march, reflected: “What made it especially meaningful for me was seeing the young people from the Roxbury community learning about voting rights from people directly involved in the struggle.”

On Sunday, March 5th, Taylor Branch returned to the First Church in Roxbury. A large and appreciative audience heard him talk about the third and final volume of his trilogy, At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years 1965-1968.

©2006 The Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities

Published in Mass Humanities, Spring 2006