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‘We have fought this fight for so long,’ Bettie Mae Fikes says of voting rights bill

011222_screenshot_BettieMaeFikes.PNG Bettie Mae Fikes shown in a screenshot from John Lewis' July 30, 2020 funeral.
Screenshot via 11 Alive
Bettie Mae Fikes marched with John Lewis in Selma and later sang at his July 2020 funeral.

Bettie Mae Fikes marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — and was jailed for it. She stood her ground at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 1965, a protest that would become known as “Bloody Sunday” after state troopers attacked marchers with clubs and whips. The Alabama native became known as the “Voice of Selma” for the way she set civil rights marches to song.

But Fikes noted that the very issue that got her involved with the civil rights movement remains a focus today. Speaking of the voting rights bill just approved by the U.S. House of Representatives, she said: “This is a vote that people had to die for. … So now here we are fighting the same fight all over again.”

Fikes said she agrees with President Joe Biden’s comparison of the current fight and previous battles. In a recent speech, he said the question for lawmakers was: "Do you want to be on the side of Dr. King or George Wallace? Do you want to be on the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor?”

“I realize we're still fighting the same fight,” she said on Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air. “When will this end?”

Fikes will speak about her history of activism at a Martin Luther King Jr. celebration at the Missouri University of Science and Technology on Jan. 20. Admission is open to the public and free with a canned food or nonperishable donation to the Student Diversity Initiatives’ food pantry.

Listen to Bettie Mae Fikes on St. Louis on the Air

On St. Louis on the Air, Fikes explained that she’d gotten involved with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee as a high school student in Selma. Organizers asked teens if they knew whether their parents had the right to vote — a question that she said opened her eyes.

“Far as I was concerned, the Black and white got along just fine. As far as I was concerned, the Black was able to vote, just like the white,” she said. “As a student I hadn't understood none of those things — until SNCC people came to town.”

A talented gospel singer, Fikes changed the lyrics of classic tunes to call out segregationists. She briefly demonstrated that she still has the vocal chops by demonstrating on air.

She also described seeing friends beaten by law enforcement, with no consequences to the offenders.

“That was my first time seeing it, that these people are really serious,” she said of one friend’s beating for refusing to leave a drugstore with a segregated counter. “And there was nothing done about that. You can do these things to us, and there's nothing that we can do about it. And when Dr. King had told us to be nonviolent, well, that's a bitter pill to swallow, to see your mother, your brother, sister, viciously beat and there's nothing you can do.”

At one point, Fikes served three weeks in jail for protesting. She said the judge kept ordering her back to jail because she refused to answer his question about who the group’s leader was. “My mother feeds me and Jesus leads me,” she would respond.

She used the time to recruit others in jail to join SNCC. “I don’t know what it is about Bettie Mae’s little friendly personality,” she quipped. “But it was a call worthwhile.”

Related Event

What: Bettie Mae Fikes
When: 7 p.m. Jan. 20
Where: Leach Theatre in Castleman Hall (400 W. 10th St., Rolla, MO 65401)

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Kayla Drake. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.