Christine Jordan knew well the experience of facing injustice. As the cousin of Martin Luther King, Jr., the struggle for civil rights was in her blood. She grew up in a Georgia suffocated by the brutal tyranny of Jim Crow laws. From Atlanta, Georgia to Selma, Alabama, segregationists ensured that African Americans and other people of color communities were denied their constitutional right to register to vote, no matter how spurious their justifications for denial. The segregationists might demand that the registrant recite, by heart, every word of the U.S. Constitution or guess the number of jelly beans in a jar just to get their voter registration approved.
At the age of 92, Mrs. Jordan had every reason to believe that things had changed. She had voted in every election since 1968, and no one had interfered with her right to vote. She arrived at her polling place last November with the help of her walker, dressed in her Sunday best, for she was celebrating her fiftieth year of casting her vote. But this year was different. In 2018, Mrs. Jordan was once again denied the right to vote. Like over a million other Georgians – most of which were African-American – she had been purged from Georgia voting rolls by Secretary of State Brian Kemp in his quest to win the Georgia governorship.
Remembering Those Before Us
Today, despite it being fifty-four years after the March at Selma, we continue to witness a rise of voter suppression. A dark contrast exists between the spirit of those who suppressed votes and the spirit of the compassionate Americans who marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in a non-violent demand for people of color to have the constitutional right to vote. Six blocks into their 54-mile march to Georgia’s capital in Montgomery, they were confronted by then-Governor of Alabama George Wallace’s state troopers and local lawmen, armed with billy clubs and tear gas.
These brave men and women knew the stakes. Prior activists had been murdered all over the South, no matter how peaceful their protests. But they marched on, for their cause was just and some things were worth dying for. As the protestors approached the crest of the bridge, the troopers raced forward, horses charging with their clubs held high. They opened their tear gas canisters as they slammed men and women, young and old, to the ground while dozens of white spectators waving confederate flags jeered and cheered on the brutal beating of innocents from nearby. Fortunately none of the protestors died that day, but many said they feared they would not would make it out alive.
Witnessing the attack on the Selma Marchers, reporters and photographers called in to their newspapers and stations to describe the horrors, sending in photos to record and memorialize what would be remembered as Bloody Sunday. Millions of Americans had their TV programming interrupted by breaking news of the Selma March. In this moment, America could no longer look away. They were forced to choose to side with either the brutality of bigotry and hate or their fellow Americans sacrificing their lives for the goal of self-determination. The marchers shined a light so bright on the scourge of racism that it awoke the conscience of a nation, one hundred years after the abolition of slavery and the end of the Civil War. Their triumph finally ended the political oppression used to deny African Americans the vote in the South.
Acknowledging the Present
The story should have ended there. While we all may know that racism is still alive and well in so many of our political institutions, some things are beyond the pale. Forty-seven years after Selma, the Supreme Court effectively struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act, clearing the way for a Pandora’s box of new state laws designed to deny minorities their constitutional right to vote. States around the country imposed the greatest voting restrictions since the Jim Crow era.
Nowhere was the attack on voting rights more egregious than in Georgia where Secretary of State Brian Kemp introduced a sweeping set of crackdowns, every single one of which disproportionately affected African Americans. In one night, he executed what The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has called the “largest mass disenfranchisement in US history”, purging 500 thousand voters from the Georgia voter registration list, allegedly because these voters didn’t vote in consecutive elections. Those purged represented a total of eight percent of Georgia’s voting population, and none of them were warned that their voter registration was canceled. During his tenure as Secretary of State, Kemp purged 1.4 million voters from the Georgia voter registration list. In addition, Kemp closed 214 polling locations throughout the state of Georgia, most of which were in largely African-American communities all while attributing the closures as his efforts of reducing Georgia’s election expenses.
When his eventual opponent, Stacey Abrams, began registering black voters in historic numbers, Kemp claimed that her organization must be fraudulent. Abrams was not intimidated by Kemp; his investigation found no evidence of fraud to justify its existence. Kemp took another route to slow the new voters by suspending 53,000 voter registration applications, almost 70% of which were from black men and women.
Despite Kemp’s actions, black turnout surged to historic levels during early voting. Hence Kemp ramped his efforts into overdrive. Forty African American senior citizens were riding a group bus to their poll to cast their early votes, but they were forced off their bus by zealous county clerks, under the guise of protecting the sanctity of a little-known law that prevented “political activities” during county-sponsored events. The bus was a non-partisan, non-political ride for members of a senior center to vote.
Facing the Consequences
On election day, precincts in the black communities of Georgia had significantly fewer voting machines then normal, many of which were not functioning because they “forgot” to include the required power cords necessary to power the machines. In these and other voting polls, voters waited in the pouring rain to vote for hours while Kemp kept thousands of voting machines locked up in storage. This caused African Americans in Georgia to wait forty percent longer to vote than their demographic did in any other state in the union. As a result, countless minority voters in Georgia abandoned their places in the voting lines to return to work or families waiting at home.
How could this happen in the United States of America in 2018? How could the ghost of Jim Crow resurrect itself to haunt citizens once again? It was clear that there was much work to be done to fight the source of racism in this country, but the right to vote – the most sacred foundation of our democracy – was supposed to be unimpeachable.
Kemp received no denouncement from his party for dusting off the playbook of the segregation era as they resolutely supported Kemp’s candidacy for the governorship to the last moment; Kemp won his race against democrat Stacey Abrams by 1.5%, or 56,000 votes. Again, Kemp suspended 53,000 voter registrations, purged 1.4 million voters from Georgia’s voter lists, and forced black voters to wait hours to vote. Had it not been for Secretary of State Kemp’s assault on Georgia citizens’ voting rights in preparation and during his own candidacy for governor of the same state, it is likely Georgia would have elected the first black female governor in America’s history.
Kemp’s actions may be the most egregious, but he is not alone. Heidi Heitkamp shocked the U.S. political world in 2012 when she won a North Dakota senate seat in part due to high turnout by Native Americans. To insure against this reoccurrence, her opponent Kevin Cramer and his party introduced a state law preventing citizens from voting unless they had identification cards indicating a residential address. As the majority of Native Americans living on tribal reservations don’t have street addresses, this new election law was poised to systematically disenfranchise these Native American voters. Its impact was particularly devastating because it went into effect just one month before the next election, due after the courts enabled it to be implemented. Those who might have known about the law’s requirements did not have time to respond.
Practices of disenfranchisement have been implemented in different styles in twenty-four states; all of these practices were aimed at reducing voting rates of people of color groups threatening political majorities. In 2019 alone, tens of thousands of voters were slashed from Texas voter rolls.
It is our moral responsibility to act and to act decisively. By doing nothing, we dishonor the sacrifice of the heroic marchers in Selma, Alabama. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.”
It is clear that politicians who act to violate voter rights believe they can get away with this with no political consequence. If anything, their actions are increasingly more brazen. Therefore, let’s change their political calculus by making voter suppression our litmus test on election day. We must make it crystal clear that if you interfere with anyone’s right to vote, you will never win another election again. We will work to deny them the nomination, and if they win it anyway, we will vote for their opponent because the integrity of our democracy matters far more than four years of a policies we may not favor. Second, we need to make sure that our friends and family members know exactly what has been and is occurring. If we can spread the message and make sure that every American knows how far they have gone, then we can beat it because most Americans of all political persuasions should know that messing with our democracy is wrong.
Third, we must be more engaged with our democracy. Register for voter suppression updates with sites such as Let America Vote. When voter suppression is proposed in your state, they will let you know how to get involved, how to call your state rep, when protest are planned, and when efforts to pass a national new voting rights law are moving forward. Citizens can even learn the progress of their own state’s expansion or contraction of voting rights from places like the Brennan Center for Justice’s “Voting Laws Roundup.” Fourth, organizations working to protect voter rights need funds to function. If you have the means to contribute, you can donate to voting rights organizations like People for the American Way and Stacey Abrams’ Fair Fight Action. Finally, logistical successes of elections are based in part on contributions of volunteers working to protect our democracy. You can volunteer to serve as an election day poll watcher to help ensure voting rights for all.
The fight to ensure universal voting rights can feel daunting. But we must remember that we are not alone in this struggle. The task ahead of us may be great, but the foot soldiers of the civil rights movement faced far greater odds and evils then we are today, and they triumphed over the yoke of segregation. American history is littered with examples that prove that when we stand up against injustice, given enough time and perseverance, we will overcome. It is the job of our generation – and any others who will join us – to pick up the torch that ordinary and heroic Americans carried across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama fifty-four years ago and to carry it forward until we have guaranteed, once and for all, that votes of our fellow citizens will never again be denied.
1. Mark Niesse, “Your guide to Georgia voting integrity and access,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, November 1, 2018, https://www.ajc.com/news/state–regional-govt–politics/your-guide-georgia-voting-integrity-and-access/N0tKKIX6f6nQ6glJdhjvYK/.
2. Geoff Hing, Angela Caputo, and Johnny Kauffman, “Georgia Purged About 107,000 People From Voter Rolls: Report,” The Atlanta Journal, October 19, 2018, https://www.wabe.org/georgia-purged-about-107000-people-from-voter-rolls-report/.
3. Alan Judd, “Georgia’s strict laws lead to
4. Michelle Goldberg, “Democracy in Danger in Georgia,” New York Times, October 12, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/12/opinion/stacey-abrams-kemp-georgia-voters.html.
5. Lisa Hagen and John Bowden, “Abrams ends fight in Georgia governor’s race,” The Hill, November 16, 2018, https://thehill.com/homenews/campaign/417209-abrams-concedes-georgia-governors-race.
6. Laurel Brubaker Calkins, “Rights Advocates Ask Judge to Stop Texas From Wrongly Purging Voter Rolls,” Bloomberg Politics, January 30, 2019, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-01-30/texas-voter-witch-hunt-alleged-by-latinos-suing-to-stop-purge.
7. “Your Guide to Standing Up for Voting Rights,” Let America Vote, accessed March 14, 2019, https://www.letamericavote.org/guide-standing-voting-rights.
8. “Voting Laws Roundup 2019,” Brennan Center for Justice, last modified March 12, 2019, https://www.brennancenter.org/analysis/voting-laws-roundup-2019.