In the wake of anniversaries of mid-century civil rights milestones such as the Selma to Montgomery March, Affirmative Action, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, professor of political science Dr. Vernon Johnson asked, “How far have we come?”
Bellingham Central Library approached Johnson to do the third of a three-part lecture series on the history of the relationship between race and politics, which wrapped up on Wednesday, April 15.
His lecture “Mid-Century Dream to Today’s Reality: All the Ways that Race Still Matters” explored the ideas and expectations of the Voting Rights Act and Affirmative Action contrasted with recent events that challenged these ideals.
Such events include recent Supreme Court rulings as well as recent allegations of police brutality in the deaths of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott and others.
In 2013, the Supreme Court removed section four of the Voting Rights Act so that states that needed authorization to change their voting procedures no longer needed to do so. According to Johnson, “states that have a history of preventing people of color from voting” are no longer under scrutiny. Last year, the Supreme Court ruled Affirmative Action unconstitutional in Michigan universities, although federal policy stands.
In attendance was Dennis Lane, a Bellingham resident associated with the nonprofit Whatcom Community Television and Communications and friend of Johnson.
“He mentioned Ferguson a lot,” Lane said. “Ferguson, to me, was a way small-town police and small-town governments were able to balance their budget because of white flight. Stopping black for broken tail lights, incarcerating them, becomes a way in which Ferguson survives.”
Matthew Stidham, a senior at Western Washington University and a student in Johnson’s class on race and public policy, received extra credit for attending the lecture.
“I’m getting more context on top of what I got from class and getting [to hear] questions from the community. He talked about some local politics like with the new jail and immigration policy,” Stidham said, referring to discussion during the question and answers portion on the discussion of a new jail coming into the area.
Johnson has been a faculty member in the Department of Political Science at Western since 1986. When anti-government violence became an issue in Bellingham in the 1990s in the form of cross burnings and racially motivated violence, he helped found the Whatcom Human Rights Task Force and chaired its board from 1997 to 2000.
The lectures took place on the two Wednesdays prior to Wednesday, April 15. The first in the series was about the Anti-Hindu Riots in Bellingham in 1907 and the second was on persecution of left-wing individuals during McCarthyism.