Into a New Voting Rights Act
Barack Obama: It is a great honor to be back in Ebenezer Baptist Church in the pulpit of its greatest pastor, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Trymaine Lee: Today, a final celebration of life for late civil rights icon and Georgia Congressman, John Lewis. It was held at the Ebenezer Baptist church in Atlanta, The church one led by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.
Obama: The life of John Lewis was, in so many ways, exceptional. It vindicated the faith in our founding, redeemed that faith; that most American of ideas, the that idea that any of us ordinary people without rank or wealth or title or fame can somehow point out the imperfections of this nation, and come together, and challenge the status quo, and decide that it is in our power to remake this country that we love until it more closely aligns with our highest ideals.
Lee: After funeral, the Congressman was laid to rest at Atlanta's South-View Cemetery. He was 80 years old. But decades earlier, John Lewis's life was almost cut short.
John Lewis: We're marching today to dramatize to the nation, and dramatize to the world that hundreds and thousand of Negro citizens of Alabama, but particularly here in the Black Belt area, denied the right to vote.
Lee: On March 7th, 1965, a group of protesters gathered at the base of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, calling for voting rights. 25-year-old John Lewis led the way. It was the first in a series of planned marches from Selma to Montgomery.
Lewis: And we intend to march to Montgomery, to present said grievances to Governor George C. Wallace.
Lee: But before they could get very far, state troopers attacked the protesters with horses, billy clubs, and tear gas. (SIREN) (PAUSE) John Lewis was badly beaten, his skull fractured. Dozens of other people were injured. That day became known as Bloody Sunday. And images of the violence broadcast nation-wide put pressure on Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act. President Lyndon Johnson made this address to Congress days later.
Lyndon Johnson: It's not just Negroes, but really it's all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome. (APPLAUSE)
Lee: The 1965 Voting Rights Act outlawed discriminatory voting practices like literacy tests and poll taxes. And every year that John Lewis served in Congress he would introduce a vote to protect the legislation he nearly died for.
Lewis: There's a long history in our country especially in the 11 states that are all confederacy from Virginia to Texas of discrimination based on race, on color. Just think before the Voting Rights Act of 1965, it was almost impossible for many people in the State of Georgia, in Alabama, in Virginia, in Texas to register to vote, to participate in the democratic process.
Lee: In 2013 the Supreme Court gutted key elements of the Voting Rights Act. But the passing of John Lewis has added new fuel to fight against voter suppression. On Monday, South Carolina representative James Clyburn reintroduced HR4 restoring what had been stripped from the Voting Rights Act under a new name.
James Clyburn: The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act of 2020, that will be the way to honor John R. Lewis. Words are great, but the most meaningful thing that you could do is to put substance to those words.
Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee and this is Into America. Today as John Lewis is laid to rest, at look at whether his death could breathe new life into the struggle for equal voting rights.
Obama: And I know this is a celebration of John's life. There are some who might say we shouldn't dwell on such things. But that's what I'm talkin' about. John Lewis devoted his time on this Earth fighting the very attacks on democracy and what's best in America that we're seeing circulate right now.
Lee: LaTosha Brown is a philanthropist and a political organizer. She's the co-founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund, a non-profit dedicated to buildin' Black civic engagement, particularly throughout the South. She joined me to talk about the ongoing fight for equality. Generally, how have you been? I mean, this has been a rough week for a lot of people. The passing, home-going of Congressman John Lewis. How are you feeling?
Latosha Brown: It has been a very challenging week. We also lost Reverend C. T. Vivian.
Lee: That's right.
Brown: And who was like a mentor to me. We lost some great men, some giants that were really significant in our community.
Lee: You know, there are a lotta people who may understand in a superficial kind of way the work that was done in the '60s and what men like C. T. Vivian and John Lewis were fighting for, okay, voting rights. But what were some of the barriers to the franchise that Black folks were facing?
Brown: Yeah, what's interestin' is it's so parallel of what we're seein' right now, what's happening right now. 1) The attack on democracy, but also the uprisin's that related to George Floyd's murder. Fundamentally if you really know what happened around the Selma, Montgomery march, it actually stemmed from Jimmie Lee Jackson.
It was a state-sanctioned violence in which the murder of a young marcher in Perry County, Alabama, who was marching with his grandfather. And he was tryin' to shield his grandfather and in the process he wound up getting killed by the state police.
And the people were so upset they had decided that night that they were gonna walk 50 miles to Selma and take his body and lay it on the front of the capitol steps. And so the Selma to Montgomery march was actually at the intersection of voting rights, but also human rights and against police state sanctioned violence.
And so when you think about, like, really what they were fighting for, it wasn't just about a law. They were literally fightin' about their humanity and that their humanity be honored and recognized. They were literally fightin' for that their community would stop receiving abuse, right.
They were really fighting to make sure that they were speakin' in this race of we're going to be transformative around love. And so even the right to vote was to the extent in which people had the power that was given to them in the Constitution, that they could actually demonstrate and operate in their own sense of agency.
Lee: I love that word of agency. You're harnessing power and through the franchise connecting yourself to your citizenship and the agency as full American citizens which many of us would argue Black folks still haven't (LAUGH) been able to fully recognize ourselves to see us as full citizens. But then that word legitimate policy issues--
Brown: That's right.
Lee: I want people to understand some of the actual barriers between Black folks and the vote.
Brown: 1) It was the poll tax. You know, my grandfather who was born in 1905, he actually kept his card, his receipt that he paid poll tax. So there was a charge for people who you knew had to pay to be able to vote. There were also barriers around registration, voter registration.
Just to be able to qualify to register, you may have to be subjected to answering questions similar to, "How many jelly beans are in this jar?" Or, "Please recite the Preamble of the Constitution." What we also know is that in addition to that, there was a lot of intimidation.
People don't talk about that. Many of the people at that time were sharecroppers in the deep South. And so they would live on land that had been formerly plantations. And they were livin' on that land and still working as Black farmers. And so they would get kicked off the land if they had registered. That happened to Fannie Lou Hamer. So it was a layered approach to prevent African Americans from voting and participating in the process.
Lee: What is it do you think fundamentally about the power of the vote that was so precious where they had to keep us from it?
Brown: It wasn't about participation. It was about power. Votin' is about power. We reduced our conversation about voting in this country as if it's about participation. Participation is just a part of it. Just because you participate does not necessarily mean that that automatically leads to power.
But what it can do is if there's a leverage, particularly in these communities, when you saw in the Black Belt like in Selma, that was a majority African American population in those areas. What happens when the minority are white people? What you saw is you saw this very extreme suppression of the vote.
Because in those areas, you had 70%, 80%, 90% of the population were African Americans. So in fact if they could vote, they could actually make a difference and make a decision on who the leadership was, on where resource and some policy got made, and who would actually benefit from that. So part of it wasn't just around, "We don't want Black people to participate 'cause we don't want them to participate." But this was fundamentally then as it is now, it was literally about suppressing the potential power of Black people.
Lee: So after a lot of organizing and blood shed and sacrifice, you get to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. How did that change the landscape and participation and access to that power we're talkin' about?
Brown: With that you start seein' elections where you saw massive turnover. You start seein' elections where you start seein' African Americans getting elected for office. The Democratic Party in Alabama, their symbol, they had a rooster. And the symbol said, "White Supremacy."
Brown: That was the Democratic Party in the State of Alabama. After that, right, when African Americans started voting, their interest in voting for candidates that they supported, whether they be white or Black, you start seeing changes in the language.
You start seein' even changes in the overt racism. And so what happened with the 1965 act, is that it did certainly open up a space for the enfranchisement of African American and all voters. But it did not solve the problem. And it did not create all the repair.
Once folks were actually registered, the Voting Rights Act passed. And there were thousands of African Americans particularly in Lowndes County, in Dallas County, Wilcox County down in the Alabama Black Belt that were now registered and participatin' in the process, you had a record voter turnout in the next election cycle.
But what you also had is you had white backlash that so many people got kicked off of their land or got kicked off the land that they were renting or places where they were stayin' that there was actually a city outside of Lowndes County on Highway 80. They called it Tent City.
People literally after the Voting Rights Act, what people don't know, is that there are folks that lived in a tent city for over a year because they were kicked off of their land. And so I think that is really important for us to recognize the fight for the vote never stopped.
Matter of fact, it even intensified at points. If people look at the picture of Selma Bridge on Bloody Sunday in 1965, there is a man that's standing right behind John Lewis. His name is Albert Turner. Ironically years later, his wife who had been doing voter work her entire life.
When Black people started gaining power and having positions in that area, it was in the early '90s. Jeff Sessions, the Jeff Sessions of Alabama, charged his wife and other people. He actually accused them of voter fraud because they were helping people register to vote. So it as always been an attack that just wasn't around the voter, but it was every access point in which African Americans have been empowered to participate in the process, there has been some backlash in this country around that.
Lee: Now we talked about just how pivotal and important the Voting Rights Act was in at least giving folks access. But weren't there some protections built in? So, I mean, it kept being tested. But weren't there fundamental protections built in?
Brown: What really gave teeth to it and made a substantial change of what was happening in the south, what was called Section 5. There was a section in the Voting Rights Act that actually provided a provision, a pre-clearance provision. And this is pre-clearance provision is those states that had a history of voter suppression and not adherin' to voting rights.
That they actually had to go through either the Department of Justice or a federal panel to be able to get clearance of any voting plans that they made. And the Department of Justice made a decision, or the federal panel made a decision whether that plan was approved or not.
And if there was some racism or some other elements that said that racism was involved as part of the decision-making process. However what happened in 2013 when the pre-clearance clause was struck down by the Supreme Court, and many advocates just like myself, I was at the Supreme Court.
We went to the Supreme Court to listen in on the arguments and also to advocate. Essentially what the Supreme Court said was there was no longer need for that. That happened in 1965. Everything had worked itself out. Because Black voters were actually voting. And we were voting in high numbers. And I have a point to say about that too. Black people's voting and participating in this country has nothin' to do about America makin' it easy.
Lee: So in 2013 we had Shelby County versus Holder which gutted the Voting Rights Act. What happened next? Like, what do we see happening across the country?
Brown: 1) We start seeing voter ID laws, the mass closin' of polling sites particularly in Black and poor communities and people of color communities. We saw a series of local and state laws that actually we think added to the disenfranchisement of African American voters.
There is a study that the Brennan Center just put out. In the study they talk about currently right now, that when you look at those states that are no longer covered now. Because the pre-clearance is gone. But that had been covered in the Voting Rights Act in Section 5 that currently in those states, they have a 40% higher rate of Black and people of color being kicked off the voting roles than the national average.
Lee: Surprise, surprise.
Brown: Surprise, surprise. You know, it's like a death by 1,000 cuts. Moving a polling site ten miles away from a home where people stay particularly in the South where you don't have a real comprehensive public transportation system, where you have massive numbers of people who are the working poor in those areas that when you just move a site ten miles, there's a major drop-off in participation.
Because now people are dealin' with a transportation barrier. I know in Alabama there are some polling sites that were actually placed in the police precincts. The police precincts have not been necessarily a friendly place that Black people wanna go that were actually dealing with police violence.
Is that somewhere that we wanna go and vote? And so ultimately the process to vote becomes very inconvenient for people. And so you start seein' those little elements that make a major difference. And you'll see a drop-off in the process.
Lee: You know, they'll say that they're makin' it more efficient or that there's, you know, massive voter fraud happening. Or now it's, like, it's COVID-19. Is there any possibility that all this just happens to be chance?
Brown: I mean, my grandfather would say, "If it looks like a duck, walk like duck, quack like a duck, it's a duck. It's a duck." (LAUGH) But this isn't new. We have seen this. I even will tell you, you know, I have been working in elections for 27 years.
I have worked in Alabama, Mississippi. I mean, I worked in the real good states. (LAUGH) In the states where I (SIC) have an egregious history of voter suppression. But where I experienced in Georgia, this last election cycle actually takes the cake.
What I experienced and witnessed, and bore witness to, as a Black voter myself, that literally I left one polling site literally in tears. Because I go to vote and it took three hours. I go on the other side to assist someone who lived in a majority white district.
And there was no wait. Took maybe five minutes. I come back to assist voters in Atlanta at another polling site. It is 1:00 p.m. The machines had just come online at 12:00. That means people had been waiting outside for five hours. There were people wrapped around the building.
While we were in line, there was a woman who was a caretaker that said she works for an older white woman that she's a caregiver to. That she had taken her to vote earlier. It was seven minutes in the car, taking her out to vote and in. Seven minutes flat.
When she came to her polling site, on her break, her hour break, she had been in line for 35 minutes. And they were anticipating a two-hour wait. So what was hurtful and painful to me is why is there such a distinction in experience the way the white voters vote and where they vote and where Black voters vote?
It should not matter if there's a Democrat or Republican in office for my right to vote to be protected, right. I actually reject that. Voting is not a partisan issue. And I would do the same. If there was a Republican and we went to a polling site, they would not let them vote, I would fight as hard for them as I would for myself. 'Cause I fundamentally believe in the principles of democracy.
Lee: When we come back, LaTosha and I talk about the current push for voting rights including her work with the Black Voters Matter Fund. Stick with us.
Lee: We're back With LaTosha Brown. So in 2013, the Voting Rights Act is essentially gutted, allowing states rather than level the hurdles, at height to the hurdles. Is the only way to fight that teaching more people how to jump over the highest hurdle? Like, what would efforts like not just get a whole bunch of people to (LAUGH) jump around and over these hurdles, but actually lowering the hurdle?
Brown: We've gotta mobilize, educate, and do as much as we can to protect the vote in the short-term. In the long-term, we've got to have some radical changes in this country so that we don't put the burden on the very people who are bein' oppressed. That's insanity.
So I think we need a couple things. I think, 1) I believe that we need a complete, complete shift around how we run elections in this country right now. We should have universal registration. We should have same-day registration. I wanna see a voters' bill of rights.
I know people say, "Well, we haven't had that before." Well, the bottom line is that we didn't have this 1965 act before we had the 1965 act. So we're in 2020 right now. What we need is we need a voter bill of rights. Because the constitution, there's nothin' in the constitution that actually guarantees the vote, right.
And so we need to actually guarantee a constitution that actually gives rights to voters enshrined in the constitution. We need that. If we have a Department of Defense, why don't we have a department of democracy? A department of voting? We shouldn't have to have a radical re-imagining. If we are to see something different, we can't continue to operate in a broken system and expect that it will self-repair. It will not.
Lee: Can you get there without restoring Section 4 and 5 over the Voting Rights Act? The House reintroduced and renamed HR4 after John Lewis, right, which is meant to repair what's been taken out of the Voting Rights Act. Do you need to get that first?
Brown: You know, if America wanted to, America could decide tomorrow to be democratic.
Brown: You know, it's not a precursor. However I do think just bein' pragmatic, I think it's gonna take having that first, right. But because that's before Congress right now, pass the bill.
Lee: Do you think they will? Because they tried to get it restored in the past. Do you think this time with the good will to George Floyd and good will after John Lewis's death, do you think now might be the time?
Brown: I think this should be the time. But I don't see the kind of leadership from the Republican Party at all. Matter of fact, it was just two weeks again when Mitch McConnell says that he doesn't see the evidence of voter suppression. Well, obviously he didn't go to his own state to vote.
On this last primary in his own state of Kentucky in Louisville, in Jefferson County, which has 612,000 voters, there was one polling site for 612,000 voters. You know, obviously he didn't recognize the challenge in that. But aside from that, let's be honest.
The Republicans have openly said that when there's a higher voter turnout, that it favors the Democrats. He even himself said wanting people to vote was simply a Democratic power grab. You know, the bottom line is if your party is not getting people 'cause they're not voting, then perhaps you need to change the elements of your party.
But that doesn't mean that democracy should suffer because you can't win because you got bad policies. That means that you should change your agenda that is more reflective and more inclusive of Americans. I think embedded into the work that we're seein' 'em do, some of what they're sayin', is they have actively decided that voter suppression is going to be a strategy to maintain their power.
Lee: One thing you said at the beginning of this conversation when we're talkin' about the loss of John Lewis and C. T. Vivian, as their spirit, right, and what they were fighting for and what they were pushing for and some of the others. That it wasn't just about the right to vote.
It was recognizing our humanity and our citizenship. And love seems to be central in all of this, right, the Kingian Beloved Community. And I wonder how that spirit of love and recognizing our humanity and our agency feeds the work that you do and the work of Black Voters Matter.
Brown: (SINGS) We shall not, we shall not be moved. We shall not, we shall not be moved. Just like a tree that's planted by the waters. We shall not be moved." You know, I wanted to sing that just to ground us about really what this is about. This is really about humanity bein' recognized.
And that's a freedom song. It was in the spirit of that work. You know, those folks did not have a political party on their side, the Republicans or the Democrats, quite frankly. You know, they didn't have resources. What they had, though, they had a belief in their own agency.
They had a belief in their own humanity. And they had a particular spirit and courage that they needed to change. They were not going to be moved. That they were going to stand firm. And I think that is how change happens. Democracy does not fix itself particularly when it has never been fully realized.
You know, when I think about America, we talk about the founders. Let's talk about who the founders were. The founders of this country were the founders of a nation. They had particular ideologies and thoughts and positions around democracy. But they didn't believe in democracy. Let's be honest.
Brown: And they didn't even believe, not just Black people, they didn't even that white people, white men who didn't own land should vote, right. They didn't even believe that women should vote. My point is they were never the founders of democracy.
But John Lewis and C. T. Vivian and Amelia Boynton, and Marie Foster, and James Orange, and Bernard Lafayette, those were the founders of democracy. That was a generation of leaders who fundamentally believed in not just Black people right to vote, but every single citizen in this country.
And they fought for it. And they got beat for it. And they stood for it. And they worked for it. So when I think about who were the founders of America, they were not the same as the founders of democracy. When I think of the founders of democracy, who literally forced America to take a position and to say that all people on some level had the right to vote, it was people like John Lewis.
Lee: As we lay John Lewis to rest and his home goin' service today, I wonder if you feel good and feel hopeful and just feel like the future is in good hands. All that work, and now we see a passing of a generation. And if he was anything, he was a freedom fighter and an activist. But he was also a bridge from one generation to the next.
Brown: That's right.
Lee: Do you feel good about the direction we're headed in?
Lee: You do.
Brown: Absolutely. Absolutely. Let's be honest about America grew out of a protest. It was the Boston Tea Party. It wasn't a nice, "Let's sit down." It was people were upset. That was the turning point. And it was there were folks that said, "We need a new nation," right.
And so I think the same thing is happening now. The largest multi-racial, multi-generational uprisin' in all 50 states in this country. That gives me hope that people are sayin', "Enough is enough." And whenever people work together, things gotta change.
Whenever we work together, we win. And so ultimately while I think that it won't be an automatic overnight process. I think we've got a long road ahead. But what gives me hope, I was a part of the procession, the motorcade, that followed John Lewis's body from Selma to Montgomery.
I cried the whole 50 miles. I think I was cryin' for, like, multiple reasons. You know, at part of it I was cryin' because I was angry. 'Cause I was like, "Why we gotta go through this? I am committed. But why am I still fighting the same fight?" But then as we would go on, I would see people lined up on the side of the road.
And I would cry 'cause I felt affirmed. I felt that there were people that were sayin', "We're still standing," right. And that they were still in alignment. As we went on and we got to the capitol and we went into the capitol, I was thinkin' about, "Here lies a man in state in a capitol that wouldn't even allow him to enter," right.
They did their part and it is up to us. And so when I am seein' the kind of energy, the kind of clarity, the kind of commitment that I am seein' with young folks is giving me so much encouragement and hope. Because if America is ever to get better, it won't be because of the Democrats or Republican Party.
It will be because Americans decided and demanded that it is better. And so that's what gives me hope. Because I do think that there are more people that are engaged and even care about this process and are payin' attention in ways that they have not paid attention in the past.
Lee: LaTosha, thank you so very much. It's clear in your passion and your work that you're walkin' in the spirit of men like John Lewis and women like Diane Nash, and C. T. Vivian, and all those folks. So thank you for being with us today. We really appreciate it.
Brown: Thank you. Thank you for covering this story. It's really important. Thank you for all your work.
Lee: That was political strategist LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter.
Brown: (SINGING) We shall not, we shall not be moved. We shall not, we shall not be moved. Just like a tree that's planted by the waters. We shall not be moved.
Lee: Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back on Monday.