Freedom is Not Free: Why Black America can’t stop fighting for voting rights

OPINION: Americans will have to expand our imagination and develop a new constitution that respects human rights and protects the right to vote

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress” – Frederick Douglass

On Aug. 6, 2021, the 56th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, I joined a coalition of faith leaders, state legislators, HBCU students, activists, and allies on a Freedom Friday March. We gathered at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial to march to the Reagan National Airport with a message to the nation to end the filibuster and pass legislation to protect voting rights, D.C. statehood, and reparations.

We chanted, “no rights, no flights,” as we shut down the airport with righteous indignation to highlight the fierce urgency of now. Twenty-six of us were arrested for sitting in the street, an act of civil disobedience, in the tradition of Rep. John Lewis and many others who believed in the power of nonviolence to redeem the soul of America.

Demonstrators sit outside Terminal B/C at the Reagan National Airport. (Photo: Marconja Zor)

The modern assault on voting rights began with the Supreme Court decision, Shelby v. Holder (2013), weakening the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by removing the preclearance clause in section 4b. This provision protected voters in states with a history of voter suppression by requiring the Department of Justice to approve any changes to voting laws.

With the Supreme Court removing preclearance, states readily enacted laws to suppress the voter through strict voter ID requirements, purging voters from rolls, moving polling places, reducing early voting days, and forcing voters to stand in egregiously long lines.

Further, the impact of voter suppression laws have been felt in every election since this decision. In 2016, voter ID laws in Wisconsin disenfranchised 300,000 voters while Secretary Hillary Clinton only lost the state by 27,000 votes to Donald Trump. In 2018, Georgia purged 107,000 voters from the rolls and cost Stacey Abrams the gubernatorial election.

Fayetteville State University students get off a Black Votes Matter bus at Smith Recreation Center on March 3, 2020 in Fayetteville, North Carolina. (Photo by Melissa Sue Gerrits/Getty Images)

However, in 2020, Black faith and civic groups responded to voter suppression amidst the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and “COVID-1619,” in light of the death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, with increased voter engagement. As a result, there was overwhelming Black voter turnout in key states, like Georgia, where the margin was roughly 11,000 votes that determined the presidential election.

Black voters essentially wrestled a feeble nation out of the hands of authoritarianism and ended the tyranny of former President Trump. Moreover, Democrats reclaimed the majority in the House of Representatives and the United States Senate as Black voters showed back up at the polls in Georgia for a special runoff election on Jan. 5, 2021. 

This reclamation of Black voting power incited fury in the fascist faction led by Trump and the GOP, who devised a plan to overturn a free and fair election by perpetuating “the big lie.” For months, Trump’s rhetoric incited a base to lead a violent insurrection on the United States Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

The images of the army of white supremacists, military officials, police officers, and state legislators, amongst many others storming the Capitol will be forever etched in our memory. As more details continue to unfold around these events, we are clear that this was an attempted coup in the United States of America.

In this Jan. 6, 2021, file photo insurrectionists loyal to President Donald Trump breach the Capitol in Washington. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

While the nation decided to move on past the most violent attack on our democracy since the Civil War, state legislators went to work to strike back on the increase in Black voter participation. Across the country, 18 states have enacted 34 suppressive laws to limit access to mail-in voting, reduce early voting days, prohibit distribution of water to voters in line, and by far one of the most egregious — empowering state boards to replace election officials to disqualify voters, move polling places and refuse to certify election results.

To add insult to injury, the Supreme Court handed down a decision on July 1, 2021, in Brnovich v. DNC, which effectively removed the remaining provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. 

Congress in an attempt to respond to this unprecedented assault on voting rights, introduced HR1/S1 For the People Act,to ensure that our democracy works for everyone. While this bill passed the House of Representatives (220-210), it is currently stalled in the United States Senate due to the filibuster. Our democracy is at stake and this ancient relic of Jim Crow, the filibuster, stands in the way of passing this pivotal legislation because the Democrats in the Senate have relinquished their backbone and refuse to eliminate the filibuster.

President Joe Biden acknowledged the severity of the fight for voting rights in a speech given in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, when he said, “we’re facing the most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War.” This serious assertion from the president must precipitate a serious response. Therefore, President Biden must apply every tool in his arsenal to protect voting rights, including demanding the Senate end the filibuster.

During every moment of crisis within our democracy, Black people stood up and strategically fought to preserve the ideals of freedom and nationhood. Crispus Attucks fought and died in the American Revolution from British imperialism. Frederick Douglass persuaded President Abraham Lincoln to emancipate slaves and allow them to fight in the Civil War to preserve the Union. The foot soldiers in the Civil Rights Movement fought to dismantle American apartheid in segregation, voting, and housing. 

Thousands of Americans march near the Lincoln Memorial August 28, 1963 at a civil rights rally. (Photo by National Archive/Newsmakers)

It is now our time to act, as the consequences of our inaction are severe. On one hand, as states prepare to redraw legislative maps, gerrymandering can lock Black voters out of political power for another decade. On the other, the refusal to certify the election in 2024 will create another climate for a coup, perhaps this time they will be successful. Losing democracy to authoritarianism and fascism will be an apocalyptic nightmare for all, but especially for Black and brown people.

We must rebuild this nation through civil resistance and civic engagement in order to realize the beloved community. We have the power through nonviolent moral militant action to dismantle the vestiges of slavery that linger in this nation of poverty, racism, and militarism. Through our collective energy, we can create an environment of creative tension that would force the nation to change, including but not limited to, marches, civil disobedience, and collective strikes.

Freedom is not free. 

Creating a true multi-racial social democracy will cost us. Ultimately, we will have to expand our imagination and develop a new constitution that respects human rights and dignity for all, protects the right to vote, guarantees a living wage, ensures public education, provides affordable housing, ends police brutality and mass incarceration, expands the Supreme Court, abolishes the electoral college, provides reparations to Black Americans for slavery, and establishes statehood for DC. 

This will not come without a fight. We are prepared to risk all that we have to build a stronger democracy for the future. Therefore, we are calling for a BLACKOUT on Freedom Friday, Sept. 17, 2021. We are encouraging all to join us for a national strike for voting rights.

Rev. Stephen A. Green is an activist and pastor committed to radical love in action. He is the Chair of Faith for Black Lives, a coalition of faith leaders committed to radical love to build the beloved community. 

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