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John Lewis lived to see the birth and dismantling of voting rights that he fought and bled for.
Black people have been fighting for access to the ballot box since Reconstruction and are still being denied. Voting isn't the only way for communities of color to create social change—or oftentimes even the most important way— but we still deserve to participate in our democracy just as much as our white counterparts. And Lewis, a Civil Rights Movement veteran and longtime Democratic U.S. House representative from Georgia, deserved to see voting rights expanded rather than decimated during his lifetime.
Following his death on July 17, 48 U.S. senators introduced legislation bearing Lewis' name to restore the Voting Rights Act, which passed in 1965 thanks to his work and sacrifice. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted a section that required certain jurisdictions to seek federal approval before changing election laws. The provision served as a critical guard against voter suppression, particularly in the South. Without it, many states have seen a resurgence of tactics designed to diminish the voting power of Black and brown communities, as our president openly undermines the elections process.
Penning his final words, Lewis wrote, "Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble."
Across the South, organizers are battling voter suppression in the most conservative states by doing just this. These Southerners are engaged in the type of "good trouble" that would surely bring a smile to Lewis' face.
Voting rights activists at a 2019 event in Savannah, Georgia. Photo from Fair Fight Action Facebook page.
Georgia became the poster child for voter suppression during its 2018 gubernatorial election.
Hundreds of thousands of residents, a disproportionate number of them people of color, were improperly purged from voting rolls, had their voter registrations put on hold for no apparent reason, or never received their absentee ballots. On Election Day, voters contended with hours-long lines, defective voting machines, and being forced to cast provisional ballots because their voting eligibility was called into question.
If not for voter suppression, Stacey Abrams, a Democrat, may have become the first Black woman governor in both Georgia and the U.S. She received 48.8 percent of the vote in a historically red state. The election catalyzed Abrams to found Fair Fight, an organization that promotes fair elections in Georgia and around the country. One of Fair Fight's first actions was filing a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Georgia's elections policies and procedures, and the case is still pending.
Unfortunately, the state is still rife with voting issues. Hillary Holley, the organizing director at Fair Fight, told Scalawag that during this year's June primaries, voters saw the same complications as in the 2018 governor election, despite the passage of a Republican-sponsored bill in 2019 that was supposed to "fix" voting machine problems. These issues didn't stand in the way of a record turnout, some of which can be attributed to a decision of the current Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger, to send absentee ballot applications to all active registered voters, a program he's since abandoned, alleging that it's "impractical" and "too expensive."
Fair Fight reached out to one million voters before the primaries with information about how to vote absentee and how to report voter suppression on Georgia's Voter Protection Hotline. Those efforts will continue into the fall. They're also advocating for the HEROES Act in the U.S. Congress, which if passed, would allocate $3.6 billion for state and local governments to make their elections safer for our current pandemic conditions.
"I lament that you passed in such a tumultuous time; but, I promise you, we are going to fix this."
Ultimately, Holley says she is counting on Georgia voters to show up in November because it's a part of our history.
"One thing I love about Georgia is everyone keeps voting as the first thing in their mind because we understand the ripple effects of what can happen when people dont have the right to vote, and a lot of that is because of the now late Congressman John Lewis," she said.
On March 7, 1965, a day now known as "Bloody Sunday," Lewis was brutally beaten by state troopers during a voting rights march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, the state capitol, and wore scars from the attack for the rest of his life. As Lewis was born and raised in Troy, Alabama, his death was acutely felt by activists in the state, such as Dejuana Thompson.
The founder of Woke Vote, an organization that engages, mobilizes, and turns out African American voters in the South, Thompson regarded Lewis as a mentor, friend, and spiritual teacher. She eulogized him in Essence, writing, "I lament that you passed in such a tumultuous time; but, I promise you, we are going to fix this."
Woke Vote is deeply entrenched in rectifying voter suppression in Alabama. They've registered more than 2,000 voters this year, and the state has reached a record number of registered voters, over 3.6 million. Thompson is expecting a historic African American voter turnout this election year.
Furthermore, as a result of a complaint filed by state and national organizations, Alabama's Secretary of State recently announced that any voter concerned about contracting COVID-19 at their polling place may apply for and cast an absentee ballot. Although relieved by this decision, the plaintiffs, which include the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program and the Southern Poverty Law Center, are still moving towards a trial to contest the state's curbside voting ban and absentee ballot requirements that violate social distancing guidelines.
Responding to "Bloody Sunday," former president Lyndon B. Johnson delivered a special message to Congress in March 1965, asking them to pass the Voting Rights Act. He invoked not only the plight of the "Negro," but also his experience teaching poor Mexican-American children in Cotulla, Texas. "It never even occurred to me in my fondest dreams that I might have the chance to help the sons and daughters of those students and to help people like them all over this country," Johnson stated.
"It [the mask exemption] is a blatant tactic to suppress the vote in Texas, 100 percent."
Five months after Johnson's speech, the Voting Rights Act was passed, yet Latinx and Black people in Texas are still being targeted by voter suppression tactics. Not only have courts at the state and federal levels refused to expand absentee voting, but Texas governor Greg Abbott has also exempted polling locations from the state's mask mandate.
Voters can't be turned away from their polling place for not wearing a mask, which has deterred both voters and poll workers from showing up due to fear of contracting COVID-19. Ali Lozano, Voting Rights Outreach Coordinator at the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP), told Scalawag that Texas is the only state with a mask mandate that's made such an exemption.
"It [the mask exemption] is a blatant tactic to suppress the vote in Texas, 100 percent," Lozano said.
"When you tie it back to the history that we have between voting rights and race in Texas, I do not think it's an accident that Black and Latinx people are being targeted by COVID and that the polling locations that closed as a result of a poll worker deficiency, which was a result of the mask exemption, were predominantly in Black and Brown communities."
The pandemic has also led to fewer than anticipated new voters due to the cancellation of in-person Volunteer Deputy Voter Registrar (VDVR) trainings, a requirement for registering voters in Texas.
Even before the pandemic, things were not in good shape. Lozano called Texas' March primaries "a complete mess." There were poll closures, polls that opened late and closed early, broken machines, not enough machines, and numerous vote-by-mail rejections caused by alleged signature mismatches. Six-hour lines to vote at Texas Southern University, a historically Black university in Houston, garnered national attention.
In addition to fighting voter suppression in the courts, TCRP is bypassing their largely unresponsive state legislature by waging a campaign called "Democracy From The Ground Up," in which they're advocating directly to county leaders to pass over 20 proactive, pro-voter reforms that will ensure a safer, smoother election in November.
To protest segregation, Lewis and other young activists organized an integrated bus trip through the South in May 1961, the first of the Freedom Rides. Because of threats of violence, the riders abandoned their bus for a plane to travel to their final stop, New Orleans, where the historically Black Xavier University was the only place that would accommodate them.
The spirit of the Freedom Rides lives on through organizations such as Crescent City Media Group (CCMG), a community engagement and media production agency serving Louisiana's communities of color. In May, when the state legislature refused to expand absentee voting and the early voting period in response the the COVID-19 pandemic, CCMG joined a lawsuit against the state with the League of Women Voters Louisiana and three individual voters.
Local community-based organizations are dedicated to protecting voters this fall.
Trupania Bonner, the founder and director of CCMG, said he's particularly alarmed by the legislature's decision because it endangers seniors between the ages of 55 and 64, who are ineligible to vote absentee due to their age (seniors 65 and over are eligible). Through GIS mapping, Bonner found that many of these excluded seniors live in areas with high numbers of COVID-19 cases.
"They're going to be forced to go that polling site within that district where all the other seniors are vulnerable," Bonner said.
Regardless of the outcome, CCMG and other local community-based organizations are dedicated to protecting voters this fall, just as they did during the July primaries, by providing them with essentials such as masks, hand sanitizer, and Personal Protective Equipment toolkits. They're filling the void left by the state of Louisiana's inaction.
These are by no means the only movements for voting rights in the South. In Kentucky, community groups are suing over new, restrictive voter ID laws. Organizations are striving to register the 80,000 Floridians with completed felony sentences who were franchised by voters in 2018. Despite all odds, thanks to seeds sown by Lewis and his contemporaries, the extraordinary visions of ordinary people continue to bloom.