Emotional stories from 50 years ago upstaged Brad Anderson at his own event Thursday, but the Democratic candidate for Secretary of State didn't mind. Instead, Shel Stromquist's story underscored Anderson's message that the right to vote can never be taken for granted.
Stromquist, a retired UIowa history professor, is a veteran of Freedom Summer, the 1964 drive to register African Americans in the Deep South to vote.
Anderson and host Jim Larew listen as the focus is on Stromquist
"We thought we had won this battle," Stromquist said of the right to vote. "Clearly it is not over, and we have to do it again."
Stromquist, and many in the crowd of about 30 at the Jim Larew law office, choked up as he remembered attending training in Ohio with Andrew Goodman, one of three Freedom Summer workers murdered the very day Stromquist arrived in Mississippi.
"Vicksburg was a relatively liberal city," Stromquist said of his assignment. "They said they were going to bomb our Freedom House, and they did, but not until the fall after I was gone." He said the bombing failed to kill anyone because the bomb was planted directly under a huge pile of books collected for the project's Freedom School.
"So nobody was killed in Vicksburg. But people were beaten, lost their jobs, and had other consequences" for supporting the northern Freedom Summer volunteers or for trying to register to vote.
Stromquist also helped organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, a parallel structure to the state's official, white-only Democratic Party. He said the initial event was organized much like the Iowa caucuses, with the goal of electing a national convention delegation to be seated instead of the white-only delegation.
"We arrived at the location, and nobody, no one was there," said Stromquist. "Our hearts sank and we thought, well, we tried. Then once they saw us people started coming out of the woods. They had been hiding in the woods. They wanted to come, but they wanted to make sure we were there first."
Ultimately, Freedom Summer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party failed in their immediate stated goals of registering voters and being seated at the convention. Stromquist still bristles as he remembers how Lyndon Johnson failed to support the Freedom Democrats. But he said the attention brought to vote suppression in 1964 by Freedom Summer and the Freedom Democrats, and the next year at the Selma march, were the biggest catalysts in passing the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
"Mississippi went from last in the nation, with 6% voter registration, to 60% in just a couple years," said Stromquist. But, Stromquist cautioned, he had recently visited Mississippi for a Freedom Summer reunion "and there's a lot left to do."
Larew, Dvorsky and Anderson
Anderson said recent prosecutions in Iowa prompted by outgoing Secretary of State Matt Schultz are part of a larger pattern of vote suppression. He cited the recent Lee County case where a woman who had voted in an uncontested city election and thought her rights had been restored though they were not was a particularly egregious example.
"If the time line of her story had been one year earlier, she would have fallen under Governor Vilsack's restoration" in 2005, said Anderson, "none of it would have happened. "
"Threatening our voters is un-Iowan, and it is ending the day I take office," said Anderson.
Republicans have criticized Anderson for bringing up Schultz, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress instead of seeking re-election, and is now running for Madison County attorney. But as host Larew noted, GOP nominee and former Secretary of State "Paul Pate has said he wants to continue with the same design as Schultz, and he's smarter about how he wants to do it."
And the critique has a point, said former Iowa Democratic Party chair Sue Dvorsky: "We cannot fully repudiate Matt Schultz's message until Brad Anderson is Secretary of State."
Other politicos on hand were state senator Joe Bolkcom and Supervisor candidate Mike Carberry.