Selma’s error of omission: The specter of Shelby County


By: Cara L. Gallagher, weekend contributor

In one of the opening scenes in Selma, Ava DuVernay’s depiction of Dr. King’s quest for legislation that would end decades of disenfranchisement in the American South, Oprah plays a woman jammed up by Black codes prevalent in the South in 1965. A voter registrar quizzes her with questions that neither she nor any educated person of the time could possibly answer. She fails his test and is once again denied the right to register to vote. Right away we learn Selma is clearly not just a biographical film about Dr. King and other Civil Rights legends like Congressmen John Lewis, but also about the pain, shame, and violence endured by these men and women to get the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed.

A group of fellow history teachers and I went to see an early release of Selma last week. I had mixed feelings about it. In fairness to the movie, I admit educators are the worst audiences for biographical pictures. We live in the weeds of history. We’re overly critical of the transmission of fact into entertainment and tend to want to trash a film that sacrifices history for character development or exposition. Put a group of us together to see a movie about an iconoclast such as Dr. King – a character seemingly impossible to do right by any actor – and the peanut gallery is hard at work. Overall, the film was well reviewed by the group. The casting was most impressive. David Oyelowo made the impossible possible in his portrayal of a flawed but human Dr. King. Carmen Ejogo and Stephan James were Coretta Scott King and John Lewis. Both had the likeness and voice impersonation to baffle the mind.

The story in the film moved along much like how I’ve read and pictured it. After the Bloody Sunday incident on the Edmund Pettus Bridge where roughly 600 protestors were gassed, beaten, and bull whipped by Selma police, King returned to march again from Selma to the steps of the capital in Montgomery and deliver his “Let us march on the ballot boxes” speech demanding legislation protecting the voting rights of blacks. The movie closes with images of Oyelowo crushing the speech, Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, hopeful and satisfied people smiling and shaking hands, while theme music inspiring pride and good vibes plays in the background. Theater goes dark; lights go up, credits roll.

Wait, what? That was the end?

I can forgive a well-acted biopic for most anything, but leaving the audience with the impression that passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 eliminated the systematic denial to access ballots, polling places, and voter registration was surprising and downright irresponsible.

I had dinner with a non-teacher friend with whom I shared my frustration immediately after the movie. He told me take it easy and reminded me the spirit of ’65 lives on.

Yes, the spirit of the ’65 Act is still very much in tact. I’ve written and podcasted about this. But the absence of any final print about contemporary challenges to ballot access before the credits roll leaves most people to believe disenfranchisement was an issue solved and settled fifty years ago. In Shelby County v. Holder (2013), Chief Justice Roberts ruled the “coverage formula” in Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act and Section 5’s preclearance approval unconstitutional despite its 2006 reauthorization by a shockingly near unanimous House (390-33) and Senate (98-2).

Perhaps the metrics used to calculate the localities subject to Section 4 approval were dated in light of the fact blatant efforts to prevent suffrage, like the poll test shown in the movie, seldom happen. After the movie I went home to look at my copy of the Shelby County decision.

Yep, an original copy of the decision.
My original copy of the decision.

Justice Ginsburg’s dissent reminded me of the insidious ways in which jurisdictions have been imposing barriers to voters, despite the VRA, prior to Shelby. Pages 15-17 of her dissent lists eight ways in which states notorious for disenfranchising African-Americans denied access to voters between 1990-2004. Modern examples of voter suppression, such as racial gerrymandering, increased voter identification requirements, and the movement of polling places, to name a few, are more pervasive in states and lower courts.

The VRA turns 50 this year. Selma could’ve done so much more to inform and push an audience with an already textbook-level understanding of MLK, John Lewis, and the violence on the Pettus Bridge past that historic event. Not mentioning the specter of the Shelby County decision and second-generation voter suppression to willing and attentive audiences was an opportunity sorely missed by Selma’s production team.

The views expressed in this posting are the author’s alone and not those of the blog, the host, or other weekend bloggers. As an open forum, weekend bloggers post independently without pre-approval or review. Content and any displays or art are solely their decision and responsibility.



72 thoughts on “Selma’s error of omission: The specter of Shelby County”

  1. Barkingdog, we watched “To Kill A Mockingbird” and it didn’t have the power as the original, it was so cut up. I’m checking to see if I can get an uncut DVD. I want my granddaughters to see it.

    Sharpton complaining about “Selma” not being nominated for best picture is just disgusting. I wish our Black communities would realize he hurts rather than helps.

    The man playing MLK is nominated for Best Actor.

    Civility Alert: I saw a picture of LBJ and the quote “we’ll get the niggers to vote for us for the next 200 years” and then the Republicans voted yea and Dems didn’t. I heard so much palaver about Strom Thurmond being in the KKK. Well, Robert Byrd was a Grand Master of the KKK and nobody talked about it, still don’t.

    As for what happened in Selma, we will never know the real story. By the way Charleston Heston was in the first row of that parade, or it might have been another. My point is, lots of conservative people marched in those parades. I don’t see much recognition of them. They suffered the same indignities as everyone else. John Lewis knows that. That’s why I can’t listen to him berate Republicans or my head will explode.

  2. Mike A, you are wasting your breath. Certain people believe that women are to be forced, by law, to remain pregnant until the birth or natural abortion of the fetus.

    Remember, the argument is basically that women should do what men declare as ‘right’ due to religious or philosophical arguments and that the unborn take precedence over the already born.

    They deny that the right for a woman to control her own body exists, or at the very least, that right is subordinate to the rights of the unborn.

    Some of us believe that the rights of the already born supersede the rights of the unborn. The rights of both cannot be equally protected because one is not capable of existing without the other. I wish it were otherwise, but it is what it is.

    Anything else is effectively, state imposed slavery. If a woman is not allowed to determine whether of not she is or remains pregnant, then she is a slave, regardless of the mantras or emotional pleas of those that are enslaving her.

    If men feel they are somehow losing their ‘right’ to be a parent, I also would point out that due to biological curiosity, only women can become pregnant. That and there is no ‘right’ to be a parent. If science finds a way to for people to have children that doesn’t require a woman to be pregnant for 9 months, then maybe there is room to talk about ‘rights’ for the unborn. Until then, this is the world as it exists.

    I hate that there is no room for compromise here, but there is no way for both the unborn child and the woman in which it grows to have equal protection. Since someone must lose, I think that we preserve the rights of the woman as she is the only one that is autonomous. Could the fetus survive outside the womb, then it would have full rights as it would also be autonomous.

    I appreciate that some are still willing to engage the people that think abortion is some kind of sin. You have a significantly higher amount of patience than do I.

    1. Daniel Frankovitch – I believe that it cuts both ways. If a woman has the right to control her body, then so does the man who is going to be on the hook financially for the next 21 or 22 years. He should be able to force an abortion unless she agrees to absolve him financially of all risk in the raising of the child. Also, the woman should be legally liable for the loss of the male’s progeny, up to and including loss of income.

  3. Paul Schulte:

    I’m familiar with her later claims, but have no idea whether they are true or false. Nevertheless, the right announced by the Court contains no distinction based upon the manner in which a pregnancy occurs. And under your view of the issue, the cause of the pregnancy would be immaterial in any event.

    1. Mike A – Under my view it would have made a difference as to whether the court took the case to begin with. Let’s weigh the two cases. Girl wants an abortion because she got raped. Girl wants an abortion because she got pregnant during consensual sex. Which is the case the SC is more likely to take?

  4. Paul Schulte:

    You have made this point numerous times without once explaining how or why Ms. Roe’s truthfulness impacts the constitutional basis of the ruling. Neither I nor you nor anyone other than Ms. Roe knows whether she has ever lied about anything. Besides, your moral condescension is unbecoming.

    1. Mike A – Ms. Roe has been most forthcoming in later years. She admits that her attorney convinced her to claim she had been raped because that would play better with the court. In actuality she got pregnant from her then boyfriend having consensual sex. Currently Roe is very anti-abortion.

      Had the court started with the premise that the pregnancy was just because she got pregnant from her boyfriend, Roe v Wade is unlikely to have been decided the way it was. The so-called Constitutional basis for Roe v Wade would never have been created out of whole-cloth. As much as there is a Constitutional basis, her truthfulness is key to the decision.

      1. Paul C. Schulte wrote: “Currently Roe is very anti-abortion.”

        She [Norma McCorvey] also is an ex-homosexual, something else most of these commentators here live in denial about.

  5. davidm:

    Evangelicals were not apolitical necessarily, but they were not politically active. Billy Graham was an intimate of both Eisenhower and Nixon and advised both of those presidents on matters of faith. However, it was not Roe v. Wade that triggered the Moral Majority and evangelical activism. It was instead old fashioned racism.

    The Roe decision created nary a ripple in the evangelical pond. Both before and after that decision was announced, the Southern Baptist Convention adopted resolutions in support of permitting abortions under a variety of circumstances, including the mother’s physical and emotional well-being. The decision was even publicly applauded by evangelicals of great prominence, such as W.A. Criswell. Abortion was considered primarily a Catholic issue and, as I learned to my surprise when my family moved from Denver, Colorado to Huntsville, Alabama in the summer of 1963, many evangelicals did not even consider Catholics to be Christians.

    After the decision in Brown v. Board of Education was announced, private religious academies began to appear like fire ant mounds across the south. All of them were organized as segregated institutions, They were assisted by compliant southern legislatures through the enactment of laws providing tax subsidies and tuition grants. Then two things happened. First, a federal judge threw out a Mississippi law providing tuition grants to private segregated academies (all of which, by some strange coincidence, had been formed in school districts subject to desegregation orders). Coffey v. State Educational Finance Commission, 296 F. Supp. 1389 (S.D. Miss. 1969). A year later a court enjoined the Department of the Treasury from granting tax-exempt status to private segregated schools. Green v. Kennedy, 309 F. Supp. 1127 (D.D.C. 1970). Several years later, of course, the Bob Jones University tax-exemption decision was announced.

    In sum, the emergence of evangelical political activism was a product of principles somewhat less exalted than some people appear to prefer.

    I would add a couple of things in response to both you and Paul Schulte on the abortion issue. First, the Roe decision was predicated on a constitutional right rather than some sort of legislative privilege. Second, I am quite familiar with the Roe case since I wrote one of the first comments on the decision at the district court level and had the opportunity to interview Sarah Weddington at length about the case. In my view the litigation was prosecuted in good faith and, fortunately for the future of jurisprudence, the correctness of the decision does not hinge on Paul’s personal feelings about Ms. Roe.

    1. Mike A – since you were not part of the discussion of the SC during Roe v. Wade you are in no place to speak to the rightness or wrongness of the decision if she had told the truth. Did she admit at that time that she perjured herself? And if so, did you, as an officer of the court report that perjury? Her attorney did not.

    2. Mike Appleton wrote: “Billy Graham was an intimate of both Eisenhower and Nixon and advised both of those presidents on matters of faith.”

      Graham’s pastoring toward Presidents was not limited to these two. It included also Kennedy, Johnson, Carter and Clinton. Graham has been so apolitical that it didn’t matter which party was in office, they all wanted him to come visit.

      I grew up in Mississippi and moved to Florida in my early twenties. My recollection of the role of racism and faith is very different from yours. I know very well the perception by many evangelicals that Roman Catholics are not Christians. To many of them, neither are Mormons. The racists were always political people who were authoritarian. Sometimes it crossed the boundaries of evangelicalism, but it certainly never dominated evangelicals. They always preached the sermon of how Miriam and Aaron complained about Moses because he married an Ethiopian woman. Yeah, even way back then, people did not like a white man marrying a black woman. But God judged Miriam and Aaron for it, causing them to become leprous. This was the message of evangelicals, that the Bible taught racism is a sin and God would be angry with anyone who was against interracial marriage. While there are exceptions, by far and large the message of evangelicals at the time was the same as perhaps the most famous southern evangelical, Martin Luther King, Jr. They were on the side of civil rights and civil liberty.

      I know scores of evangelicals who left the Democratic Party because of Roe v. Wade. Some of them are family members. Nary a ripple is a gross mischaracterization. It was a bit humorous to watch evangelical activists and Roman Catholic activists come together to protest abortion or other similar issues like the Terri Schiavo case in Florida. Throughout the 1970’s, 1980’s and 1990’s, young people who were evangelical and deciding which political party to register with would decide mostly on the issue of abortion and homosexuality. If the Democrats dropped these two issues from their political platform, I predict the religious right would mostly shift from Republican to Democrat. Even though I am not an evangelical, I would probably join the Democratic party myself if it were not for these two issues that I consider very immoral from a rational perspective. Although I disagree with their socialist tendencies, such differences in philosophy are not as important to me as abortion and homosexuality. We find agreement in helping the poor and in social justice issues, but we differ in the methodology of how to help relieve their suffering. They say it is through government, but I say we need to help as individuals and leave government primarily to address matters of security.

  6. davidm:

    I meant to add that abortion and homosexuality as human rights are not merely “alleged.” They exist in fact and in law.

    1. Mike A – abortion exists as a ‘limited’ right under law. And, as I have always contended, if Roe had not lied, it would not even be a limited right.

      1. Paul C. Schulte wrote: “… abortion exists as a ‘limited’ right under law.”

        Nice distinction, but I see it more as a limited privilege granted by law rather than a right. Roe v. Wade left it to the States to regulate third trimester abortions. Some might view that as semantics, and maybe it is, but it greatly troubles my mind that someone would consider a mother terminating the life of her unborn child a right. It also troubles my mind that government should be in the business of encouraging its citizens to change the natural use of sex into that which is contrary to its natural purpose. This is especially true when it is plainly documented that these perverse sexual practices bring harm to the person who engages in it.

  7. davidm:

    The problem with having to work for a living is that it frequently interferes with my interests. We will assuredly never agree on many things, but I will keep trying.

    I begin by stating that liberals do not contend that racism is the sole reason for southern political realignment over the past half century. But neither would we agree that the Republican Party has served as a beacon of racial justice. Reconstruction policies following the Civil War were eventually abandoned, through a combination of southern resistance and Republican indifference. What followed was a veritable avalanche of what we know as Jim Crow laws, a system which remained in effect for almost 100 years. The South was solidly Democratic due to strong regional hatred for Reconstruction and the Republican Party.

    The decision in Brown v. Board of Education was merely another piece of paper in the South. When the civil rights movement gained steam in the following decade, the public faces of the opposition were Democratic politicians. However, the moral force of that opposition came from southern Christian evangelicals, a fact that you totally ignore in your discussion.

    Billy Graham did not march with Martin Luther King in Selma. Neither did Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell or, God forbid, the president of Bob Jones University. In 1960 that gentleman preached a lengthy sermon on the scriptural support for segregation. In the 1970s the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a resolution calling for tax exemptions for private schools that discriminated on the basis of race, hoping to protect the policies that they had adopted in the rush to build private “academies” when public school integration became unavoidable. That hope died with Bob Jones’ unsuccessful court battle. In short, the eventual merger of evangelical identity with the fortunes of the Republican party had its genesis not in Roe v. Wade, but in the prolonged effort to protect white supremacy. We did not hear the phrase “religious right” in those days only because shorthand descriptions are always invented after the fact.

    Your suggestion that the Democratic Party has lost its Catholic support is a tad overstated. In fact, much of the leadership behind integration in the south came from the Catholic Church. Catholic bishops ordered the desegregation of parochial schools long before Protestant evangelicals had given up the fight. Those orders also angered many southern Catholics, who shared many of the same racial views as their southern neighbors, but they were carried out. In fairness, of course, it was a bit easier for the Catholic Church to take the lead given its hierarchical structure, a decided advantage over the congregational organization of Southern Baptists and other denominations. It’s the difference between herding cattle and herding cats.

    The influence of religious belief was of profound significance in the civil rights movement, and it awakened people of faith on both sides of the issue to the importance of political involvement. It was no accident that Martin Luther King framed racial equality as a moral question.

    One final word on the matter of voting. We have decided through constitutional and statutory enactments that voting is the preferred method for obtaining the consent of the governed. Having made that decision, the exercise of the right to vote is subject to the same constitutional protections as any other fundamental right. Despite your distinctly oligarchical preferences, the voices of the rabble are entitled to be counted as thoroughly and accurately as the voices of the educated elite. That may not meet appropriate standards for “responsible voting” in your eyes, but it provides the great levelling force that is, in the end, the truest bulwark against tyranny.

    1. Mike Appleton wrote: “When the civil rights movement gained steam in the following decade, the public faces of the opposition were Democratic politicians. However, the moral force of that opposition came from southern Christian evangelicals, a fact that you totally ignore in your discussion.”

      Martin Luther King, Jr. was the southern Christian evangelical with the greatest moral force. Other than perhaps Jerry Falwell, and his opposition was not at all significant, what Christian evangelicals were creating a force of opposition? It seems to me that most evangelicals were apolitical at the time. That characterization certainly applies to Billy Graham.

  8. Ari, Firstly, the latter couple years of Malcolm’s life were not as anti-white as the earlier years. His message was in essence, the credo lived by all new immigrants to this country. He was hateful @ times. But he spoke to poor black people and if he lived, and if his message caught hold in the inner city, it would be a much better world for poor black folk. Mainly because they wouldn’t be so poor and uneducated. I recognize I’m probably in the minority amongst white folk regarding Malcolm. I can live w/ that.

    1. Nick – I agree with you that Malcolm X and his message changed in his last years. It is probably the reason he was assassinated by Black Muslims. He no longer toed the party line.

  9. davidm:

    One hardly knows where to begin. Let’s start with fundamental rights. Contrary to your opinion, the Supreme Court has long treated voting as “a fundamental political right, because preservative of all rights.” Vick Wo v. Hopkins, 118 U.S. 356, 370 (1886) (and a whole bunch of cases since then). The legitimacy of government is founded on consent. In this country, voting is the method selected for expressing that consent. The principal court battles over voting rights have been concerned with efforts to dilute them or render them ineffective or deny them entirely through the imposition of whatever barriers small minds are capable of erecting. And, as we all know, small minds are wondrously inventive.

    The history of civil rights is indeed complex, which is why your minimalist definition of racism is silly. Legislation was not required in order to deal with “alleged racist tendencies.” The problem was an entrenched, institutionalized system comprised of cultural, political and religious elements. Racism was prevalent throughout the country, but it was quite literally imbedded in the social and legal fabric of the South as a product of history.

    Of course the political realignment in southern politics was gradual, but it is undeniable that it accelerated in the wake of the enactment of the major civil rights acts in the late ’60s. That realignment was not primarily motivated by southern rejection of Democratic views on union organizing or tax policy; it was driven by a sense of abandonment by the party that had fought successfully against Republican policies during Reconstruction, that had implemented Jim Crow laws to prevent black participation in political and economic life for decades and yes, that had spawned and encouraged the growth of the Ku Klux Klan and similar organizations.

    Your assertion that Republicans are concerned with “responsible voting” and “trustworthy voting systems” supplants reason with euphemisms. Gerrymandering, the reduction of voting centers, elimination of early voting periods and specious anti-fraud voting regulations achieve neither of those goals, and are not intended to. As you know, the Republican controlled legislature in Florida can’t even draw a congressional district map that survives a court challenge and our governor has seen fit to make it virtually impossible for convicted felons to secure the restoration of their voting rights when they have fully paid the legal price for their transgressions. When Republicans speak of “responsible voting,” what they really mean is fewer voters.

    You state that Republicans do not believe that all races are equal in their abilities. I have no idea whether you are presenting an argument or making an observation, but it is astonishingly ignorant either way and unworthy of a serious response.

    Finally, I note that the difficulty we have encountered in integrating a once subjugated people into the fullness of American society is precisely a moral failure. The fact that the difficulty may have been predictable does not change that truth.

    1. Mike Appleton wrote: “Contrary to your opinion, the Supreme Court has long treated voting as ‘a fundamental political right, because preservative of all rights.’ Vick [sic] Wo v. Hopkins, 118 U.S. 356, 370 (1886) (and a whole bunch of cases since then).”

      It is very strange to me the manner in which you reference a court case (about a man of Chinese descent not allowed to conduct a laundry business) with the assertion that it contradicts my opinion. This case you cite is not contrary to my opinion at all, but extremely supportive of it. I am curious why you did not include the entire sentence in your partial quote. If you did not edit the sentence the way you did, everyone on the blog would plainly see that I am absolutely correct in stating that voting is not considered a natural right in law. Following is the full quote from Yick Wo v. Hopkins:

      “The case of the political franchise of voting is one. Though not regarded strictly as a natural right, but as a privilege merely conceded by society according to its will under certain conditions, nevertheless it is regarded as a fundamental political right, because preservative of all rights.”

      I assume what is meant in that last phrase is: “because [voting is] preservative of all rights.”

      The high court says quite plainly that voting is not regarded strictly as a natural right. Voting is a PRIVILEGE merely conceded by society ACCORDING TO ITS WILL UNDER CERTAIN CONDITIONS.” Such is exactly what I have been saying. It is entirely supportive of my legal perspective.

      The court’s point was that although voting is not a natural right, it is an instrument by which all rights might be preserved, including natural rights. Therefore, it is a fundamental POLITICAL right. A political right is NOT a natural right. A political right is a right granted by government for some purpose or point of order.

      You are absolutely correct to say that government legitimacy is tied to the consent of the government. A tyrannical government is contrary to natural law theory, and no government ought to be allowed to exist that rules contrary to the consent of the governed. However, voting is merely a method of measuring that consent. Nothing precludes other methods of measuring the consent of the governed. The truth is that the voting method we have in place now is not at all a very good method of measuring the consent of the governed. Our founding fathers pointed out how all democracies in history have failed. They worked toward making sure we had a republic instead of a democracy. This is one reason why they devised ways of limiting the vote. The modern Democrats foolishly work toward destroying our republic by moving us toward a more full and direct democracy. The only thing standing in their way right now, from destroying our great country, is the Republican Party.

    2. Mike Appleton wrote: “Of course the political realignment in southern politics was gradual, but it is undeniable that it accelerated in the wake of the enactment of the major civil rights acts in the late ’60s. That realignment was not primarily motivated by southern rejection of Democratic views on union organizing or tax policy; it was driven by a sense of abandonment by the party that had fought successfully against Republican policies during Reconstruction, that had implemented Jim Crow laws to prevent black participation in political and economic life for decades and yes, that had spawned and encouraged the growth of the Ku Klux Klan and similar organizations.”

      Correlation does not establish causation. Yes, the south moving toward the Republican party followed on the heels of the success of the civil rights movement, but there were many other things going on at the same time. Nobody can overlook the 1973 decision of Roe v. Wade. There was no “Moral Majority” religious-political movement and no such concept as “the religious right” at that time. During the 1960’s to the 1980’s the Democratic platform clearly avoided words about religious faith and God. The word faith was used to mean faith in government and political leaders. In early 1972, the Democratic Party platform was about abolishing the welfare system and creating instead a work system where every American who was able and willing would have a full time job with good pay. The government was to be the employer of last resort. Democrats then sounded Republican by today’s modern political platforms. The next year, 1973, was the Roe v. Wade decision. By 1977 we had Jimmy Carter coming out as a “born again Christian,” but it was like the Democratic Party was embarrassed by it all. And Carter waffled on abortion, saying that he believed abortion is wrong, but that he would not support a Constitutional Amendment. He would not stand in its way, but he would not actively seek to establish it. Soon, though, the Democratic Party was coming out strong for abortion. When once in 1961, President Kennedy led the Democrats as a Roman Catholic, now the Roman Catholic theologians became offended by the Democratic Party platform. Evangelicals and Fundamentalists in the South also become offended and expressed amazement how any person of faith could possibly support the Democratic Party any longer. Eventually, the Democratic Party supports homoosexual behavior. Well, they had by then lost all the Bible believing evangelicals, fundamentalists, and Roman Catholics. They instead found these groups protesting their political goals, and so the epithet “religious right” began to be used to smear these opposition groups. Democrats were bewildered why they lost the religious right, so they invented theories that included the one you hold onto tightly, that the racists left the party. This theory is so convenient for them. It makes them feel good and justifies what they have done.

      What is most strange in your wording above to me is that you do not seem to acknowledge that the Republican policies during Reconstruction was on the side of civil rights for blacks. They were Southern Democrats who established Jim Crow laws. They were Southern Democrats who formed and carried out illegal activities as the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan conducted violence against both white and black Republican leaders. Yes, these Southern Democrats felt abandoned by their party when their leaders Kennedy and Johnson joined with Republicans in passing a Civil Rights Act. And that indeed contributed to some of them leaving that party. No doubt about that at all. But that is only PART of the story. That is my point. Much more significant for the South, known as the Bible belt, was the Democratic Party’s shift toward supporting behaviors like abortion and homosexuality as alleged human rights.

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