"How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever."
–Excerpt from Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1965 speech, “How Long? Not Long,” delivered on the steps of the Alabama capitol after the Selma to Montgomery march.
In 1965, it seemed as if the lie was finally losing.
The lie was that Black people were unworthy of the right to have a say in who was elected to run the government that their taxes supported.
It was that lie that fueled racist laws to force them to prove their “worthiness,” to vote. Like by naming all the signers of the Constitution, or by guessing the number of bubbles in a bar of soap.
But in July of that year, five months after King made that speech, President Lyndon Johnson signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act into law. It forbade states from, among other things, using literacy tests, poll taxes and erecting barriers that would have a lopsided effect on minority groups’ participation in elections.
And Black voter registration soared.
But now, nearly 60 years later, the lie has been resurrected. And rearmed.
After Black, Latino and other voters of color propelled Joe Biden to the presidency in 2020, President Trump refused to concede. He pushed the lie that voter fraud was the
reason he lost.
Slogans like “Save America,” as if Biden’s voters were less than American, gave heft to the lie that those voters were undeserving; that the very act of them voting amounted to thievery, not democracy.
That lie led thousands of Trump supporters, many of whom were white supremacists, to
desecrate the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
But instead of being spurned, Trump’s voter fraud lie has been embraced.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, which tracks voting laws, 19 states, most of them run by Republican lawmakers, enacted 34 laws, or rather, barriers, between the ballot box and voters.
Among other things, those laws include limiting drop boxes or voting days, making it difficult to obtain identification or causing hours-long waits in lines. Laws which will invariably make it tougher for people who don't vote GOP to vote for anyone else.
That backlash has led Al Bell, the legendary former owner of Stax Records and a longtime friend of King’s, to revisit the question that King posed in Montgomery in 1965.
“I won’t dare imagine what he [King] would say at this juncture, but if I were sitting and talking with him, I would take him to Psalms chapters 13-15 and ask, ‘How long, O Lord?’” Bell said.
“The problem is that you can change laws, but you can’t change minds and hearts…that [racism] is in the DNA, and many aren’t aware of it.”
Bell, who lives in Little Rock and is still active in the arena of music entrepreneurship, often thinks of King and his hopes for changing a nation that was bent on keeping Black people either incidental or invisible.
Bell met King in 1959 – the year he went to Midway, Georgia, to teach economic empowerment at one of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s workshops.
At that time, Bell was 20. King was in his 30s.
“He was like an older brother to me, and in another sense, like a father,” said Bell, who is now 81. “He was such a learned man, and so wise at that age.”
“We were just two dudes…it was just us. I thank God for that, that it wasn’t Dr. King and Al Bell, it was just us, young men together, talking to each other.”
But even as Bell’s ambitions led him to Stax, where he began as director of promotions in 1965, he continued to support King and the civil rights movement.
“I believed in what he was doing, and that was even part of my mission statement,” Bell said. “He was influential as to how we were being treated as people in this country, and he saw how we were treated as never-ending slavery.”
Bell was even working on a song tribute to King in 1968. The song, titled, “Send Peace and Harmony Home,” was intended to let King know that, after achieving the Civil R
ights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, that he could take a break.
That he could rest.
But on the day the song was being recorded, on April 4, 1968, King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel. And now, Bell said, it seems much of what King fought for is being snuffed out, too.
Just as GOP lawmakers are using Trump’s voter fraud lies as a pretext for creating laws that will lead to long lines, confusion and inconvenience to discourage people of color from voting, they are also ginning up fake outrage over another lie; the lie that Critical Race Theory, which posits that racism is ingrained in U.S. institutions, is being taught in K-12 schools.
That course is only taught in law school.
But sadly, like in King’s day, anything that delves too deeply into the humanity of Black people still elicits more hysteria than reason.
Fears that voters of color are increasingly providing the edge in elections, and fears that learning about how racism has shaped the nation might force a reckoning with truths some don’t want to face, is taking this nation to a bad place.
It is also giving some GOP lawmakers, such as Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tennessee, a pass; they don’t have to vote for laws that will help everyone, such as the Bipartisan
Infrastructure Bill, as long as they can keep their constituents scared of anyone who doesn’t look like them.
“I’m really concerned about this country,” Bell said. “Everybody in power is trying to get more power, and the focus is not on the people and their well-being…it’s not about people anymore.”
Sadly, as Bell’s friend, King, believed in the promise of America, towards the end of his life he was becoming disillusioned.
The day before he was killed, King was working on a speech titled, “Why America May Go to Hell.”
He never got the chance to give that speech.
But given the fact that a chunk of the nation's voters are enthralled by a liar, and GOP lawmakers are using Trump’s lie to devise plots to hang onto power by silencing the voters that King marched for, it’s hard not to see how America won’t wind up creating its own hell.
One that all Americans will have to live in if those lies prove lethal to democracy.