On the night of June 12, 1963, Bernard Lafayette was walking up the driveway to his home when he heard the sound of footsteps closing in on him from behind.
He turned to see a muscular, thick-necked man with a crew cut staring down at him. "Buddy," the man said as he motioned to a stalled car in the street, "how much would you charge me to give me a push?"
Lafayette sighed with relief, and walked toward the stalled car. Suddenly, though, the man whipped out a gun and started bashing him on the forehead. With blood dripping onto his eyelashes, Lafayette staggered to his feet and watched as the man stepped back, ready to pull the trigger.
The message from his would-be assassin was unmistakable: Leave town and stop trying to organize black voters.
Lafayette was saved by an alert neighbor. But he checked himself out of the hospital the next day and, wearing a bloodied shirt and with stitches embedded in his swollen face, returned to downtown Selma, Alabama, to resume his mission of urging black residents to vote. He was 22.
"I wanted to send a message to the people there in Selma," says Lafayette today. "This was like a one-person demonstration, and as a result of that people came out of the woodwork. They wanted to register to vote; they wanted to get involved in this thing."
On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court could deliver another message. The court's conservative majority is widely expected to strike down the heart of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a momentous civil rights law for which Lafayette shed his blood. The court may rule that Section 5 is unconstitutional and no longer needed. Section 5 requires Southern states and other municipalities with a history of discriminating against minorities to get federal approval before making any voting requirement changes.
Section 5 has been used not just to protect black voters, but Latino, elderly and poor voters. It was used in last year's presidential election to halt a proposed voter-ID law in South Carolina, the reduction of early voting hours in Florida, and the drawing of a new congressional district in Texas that was deemed discriminatory against Latino voters.
While much of the coverage of the Supreme Court case focuses on the legal implications of a future without Section 5, there's a human story behind the Voting Rights Act that's been ignored. Many Americans do not know how and why the act was passed. And the terrible price people like Lafayette paid to make the act possible.
Lafayette is one of the founding fathers of the Voting Rights Act. He was part of a small interracial army of men and women who presented their bodies as living sacrifices for the act. Some lost their friends, their families, their minds -- even their lives. But 50 years after their greatest triumph, many have died and their struggle is in danger of being lost to clichés about the civil rights movement.
When the Supreme Court held oral arguments over the Voting Rights Act earlier this year, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia called the sweeping law a "racial entitlement."
For people like Lafayette, the act was something else: It was war.
He was a slender, dapper dresser who favored suits and bow ties. He looked like a movie star. If you had spotted Lafayette in 1963, you may have never guessed that the boyish-looking activist was already a veteran of some of the civil rights movement's most brutal campaigns.
He had taken seminars in nonviolent activism before joining the sit-in movement in Nashville. Then he became a Freedom Rider, an interracial group of college students who faced Southern mobs as they desegregated interstate buses in 1961. Two years later, Lafayette was looking for a new challenge. He met with the director of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a civil rights group filled with young activists, and asked if he could organize black voters in Selma. The committee's leader warned Lafayette that two experienced teams had already been dispatched to Selma and concluded that the blacks were afraid and the whites too vicious.
If you're curious, though, drive to Selma for a look, the leader told Lafayette.
"I don't want to take a look," Lafayette said. "I'm going to take Selma."
What Lafayette found in Selma was a microcosm of what had taken root in black communities throughout the South for a century. Blacks lived in Apartheid-like conditions. They were the majority of residents in Selma, but less than 1 percent were registered at the county courthouse to vote, says Gary May, author of "Bending Toward Justice," a stirring book that examines how the Voting Rights Act transformed America.
Selma could exclude so many black voters because the state of Alabama controlled the voting process, May says. State voting registrars devised an ingenious gauntlet for would-be black voters: Applicants had to remember portions of the state constitution; voting forms were discarded for minor errors; applicants had to be accompanied by a white person vouching for their honesty. Some registrars would simply ignore black applicants.
What happened in Alabama was part of an American tradition -- weaning out minority voters, May says. Voter suppression was used to prevent immigrants from voting in the 19th and 20th centuries. In 1908, New York City politicians suppressed the Jewish vote by holding registration days on Jewish holidays and the Sabbath.
"Voter suppression is as American as cherry pie," May says.
Lafayette tried to plant seeds for a voter rights movement but the conditions were tough. He received death threats over the phone. His address was printed on the front page of the local newspaper. He and his new wife, Colia, looked constantly in their car's rear-view mirror to see if they were being followed.
Worse, much of the black community shunned him for being a troublemaker who "stirred up the white folks."
"They lost hope that anything could happen," Lafayette says.
Lafayette and his wife worked virtually alone. That was the pattern for many voting rights activists. People who get their image of the civil rights movement from newsreel footage might think activists spent most of their time in large groups, singing freedom songs while they marched.