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Opinion | Civil Rights Veterans Should Get Veterans Administration Benefits

All of this suffering wasn’t for naught, of course. America was not a functioning democracy before the campaign my father and his fellow activists fought. In Mississippi, for instance, only 6.7 percent of eligible Black voters were registered to vote in 1964. So workers all across the state of Mississippi organized, fought and strategized to bring about what would become the Voting Rights Act of 1965, enforcing the 15th Amendment right to vote. This is when America became a true democracy.

I have spent my entire life hearing about righteous American wars, how we sent troops to other countries to fight to restore, preserve or install democracy. The troops who risked their lives to fight these wars, some of whom came back injured physically or mentally, are entitled to certain rights and benefits, including disability compensation, medical and educational benefits, housing assistance, burial allowances, counseling and sometimes pensions. While the Veteran Affairs benefits come with their own sets of problems and shortcomings that need to be addressed, at least they’re a start.

My dad and other activists like him have no such benefits. Many also have gone for decades without adequate health care — which speaks to the larger missing safety net that leaves far too many Americans unprotected. I’ve seen so many of my dad’s friends limp to old age because they never got their broken hips or torn ligaments or cracked bones fixed after they were beaten in the 1960s. I’ve also had to watch my dad and his friends pool together money to bury their friends who died in poverty. Imagine how many civil rights veterans could benefit from mental health support. They all deserve better.

It’s also important to note that there are precedents for benefits being extended to veterans of liberation movements in other places around the world. In India, for example, “freedom fighters” who resisted British rule before the country’s independence in 1947 are entitled to medical care, pensions and railway passes. Anti-apartheid soldiers in South Africa were promised similar benefits and have fought to make the country fulfill its promise.

The first question I get when I broach this topic is: How do we determine who gets the resources? The easiest way is to use the names of people who were on the payrolls and meeting minutes for civil rights organizations such as the Congress of Racial Equality, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in the 1960s. But that doesn’t encompass all the people who need these benefits — a shrinking group of Americans, mostly Black but some not, now in their 70s or older.

For a more comprehensive list of the people who made the movement, we should look to voter registration lists of the era from across the South. Just trying to register to vote as a Black person in the Jim Crow South was an act of defiance. Most who tried were denied, and many faced violence and threats. In 1963 in Mississippi, 83,000 of those mostly disenfranchised voters voted in an alternative election known as the Mississippi Freedom Vote. It helped prove that voter suppression in the South was creating illegitimate elections and demonstrated what a free and fair election could look like. All of the brave citizens who submitted ballots — many of whom also housed volunteers, kept freedom fighters safe and made invaluable contributions to the movement — should be among the first to get V.A. benefits for their service to our nation’s democracy.

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