Activist’s fight against segregation evolved into political action to push for voting rights

Jun 7, 2023, 6:06 AM

Civil rights activist and labor leader, Norman Hill, poses for a photo at his apartment in New York...

Civil rights activist and labor leader, Norman Hill, poses for a photo at his apartment in New York on May 10, 2023. Hill was an activist in the early 1960s fighting against segregation when he made a switch to the labor movement, which at the time saw the push for Black voting rights as a way to boost membership in unions. (AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)

(AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)

NEW YORK (AP) — Norman Hill was at the AFL-CIO office in Washington, D.C., in August 1965, and recalls cheering when he learned the Voting Rights Act had passed Congress. He then took a moment to remember the people “who were killed, literally, struggling to try to get Blacks registered to vote.”

Now 90, Hill started working in the Civil Rights Movement with the NAACP in Chicago before joining the Congress of Racial Equality in the early 1960s to work on its Route 40 Project.

Route 40 was the major corridor between Washington, D.C., and New York, but many restaurants along the highway in Maryland and Delaware served whites only. CORE staged sit-ins and was preparing a massive motorcade to fight the practice when several restaurants relented and desegregated.

That prompted the Maryland Legislature to pass a public accommodations law in 1963 banning discrimination in hotels and restaurants, becoming the first state below the Mason-Dixon Line to do so.

Hill then helped coordinate the March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech. Afterward, he decided it was time to change tactics.

“I left the Congress of Racial Equality in 1964 because I felt a transition needed to be made in the civil rights movement, from an emphasis on protests to engaging in political action,” he said.

He joined the industrial union arm of the AFL-CIO as its civil rights liaison and legislative representative, becoming involved in raising the minimum wage and working with the labor delegation on the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights marches.

Hill said labor leaders were particularly interested in the voting rights struggle because they thought their own union movement would benefit from increased Black participation in the political process.

“The trade union movement thought that perhaps Blacks having their right to vote and actually voting might change the political climate in the South, where unions had struggled to organize because the South was not only anti-Black, but anti-labor,” he said.

There had to be mechanisms for registering, he said. Before the Voting Rights Act became law, Hill said Black residents in the South who tried to register faced tests, such as “how many bubbles are in a bar of soap or interpret a section of the Constitution.”

“And no matter how clear the interpretation was, Blacks were denied the right to vote by the registrar,” he said.

He did not anticipate, nearly 50 years after it was signed, the Supreme Court in 2013 striking down as unconstitutional the way states were included on the list of those needing to get advance approval for voting-related changes. The ruling was based on a conclusion that labeling states as discriminators by relying on information half a century old was not supported.

Now the country awaits a Supreme Court decision on whether the Voting Rights Act will be reinforced or further eroded.

If he could speak to the justices, Hill said he would tell them the ability to cast a ballot is the foundation of the country.

“Without the right to vote, the political process — and in fact the democratic reality — was not one that blacks could experience,” he said.


The Associated Press coverage of race and voting receives support from the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation. See more about AP’s democracy initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

National News

FILE - Emergency personnel arrive to evacuate people at a mass shelter, Sept. 2, 2021, in Independe...

Associated Press

No prison for a nursing home owner who sent 800 residents to ride out a hurricane in squalor

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A Louisiana businessman who sent more than 800 elderly residents from his seven nursing homes to ride out Hurricane Ida in a crowded, ill-equipped warehouse pleaded no contest to 15 criminal counts Monday and was sentenced to three years of probation. Bob Dean Jr. also must pay more than $358,000 in […]

4 minutes ago

Associated Press

New Orleans civil rights icon Tessie Prevost dead at 69

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Funeral services will be held Saturday for one of four Black girls who helped integrate New Orleans public schools in 1960. Tessie Prevost Williams, known as one of the “New Orleans Four,” died July 6 following a series of medical complications. She was 69. On Nov. 14, 1960, Prevost Williams, along […]

26 minutes ago

A deer walks past a law enforcement blockade of President Joe Biden's beach house neighborhood, Mon...

Associated Press

Biden continues to recover from COVID-19, stays out of public view after ending his 2024 campaign

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden’s “symptoms have almost resolved completely” from COVID-19, according to his physician, as the president on Monday remained out of public view for the fifth straight day. Biden announced he was ending his reelection campaign in a letter posted Sunday on social media. He also announced in a statement on […]

29 minutes ago

Associated Press

Plane crashes near the site of an air show in Wisconsin, killing the 2 people on board

NEKIMI, Wis. (AP) — A plane crashed in a Wisconsin farm field near the site of an air show Monday, killing the two people on board, authorities said. Sheriff’s deputies and firefighters responding to the crash in the eastern Wisconsin town of Nekimi on Monday afternoon found the aircraft fully engulfed in flames, the Winnebago […]

30 minutes ago

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear speaks about his possible political future during an interview at the Ke...

Associated Press

Gov. Andy Beshear endorses Harris amid speculation on whether he’s in the running to join the ticket

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said Monday he spoke with Vice President Kamala Harris soon after she became the prohibitive favorite to lead the Democratic ticket, and said his state’s progress “should be a model for the country” as speculation swirled around whether he’s in the running to join the slate. Beshear […]

53 minutes ago

Associated Press

Largest trial court in the US closes after ransomware attack, California officials say

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The largest trial court in the country was closed Monday after a ransomware attack shut down its computer system late last week, officials with the Superior Court of Los Angeles County said. The court disabled its computer network upon discovery of the cybersecurity attack early Friday, and the system remained down […]

1 hour ago

Activist’s fight against segregation evolved into political action to push for voting rights