Black activists travel the South to push for voting protections, honor Freedom Riders

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RICHMOND, Va. – Hannah Gebresilassie felt the weight of history earlier this week when she boarded a bus full of voting rights activists traveling from Georgia to Virginia. Sixty years ago, civil rights activists had also traveled by bus through the South in their fight for a more equal society.

The 30-year-old activist from Atlanta understood she was riding in the shadow of Freedom Riders.

“It’s been a liberating, emotional experience to know that the people who came before us paved the way,’’ said Gebresilassie, co-founder of Protect the Vote GA.

Gebresilassie was among a group of activists, faith leaders and civil rights advocates who joined the Black Voters Matter bus trip in recent days to fight to protect voting rights and commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Freedom Riders. The riders braved violence, imprisonment and the threat of death as they traveled through hostile territory in 1961 to help end segregation and raise awareness of racism in the United States.

The voting rights bus tour kicked off June 19 in Jackson, Mississippi, where many Freedom Riders were arrested 60 years ago when they got off the bus there. The tour, which included stops in Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, West Virginia and Tennessee, aimed to travel the reverse route of the 1961 Freedom Rides. On the side of the bus are the words "Freedom Ride, The Fight Continues," "Power" and "Love" along with the images of the original Freedom Riders, a group of white and Black activists that included college students and middle-age Americans.

This week's eight-day trip came during a week of action involving voting rights.

Earlier this week, the Senate failed to pass a measure to start debate on a sweeping voting rights bill. The For the People Act backed by Democrats would, among other things, allow same-day voter registration and expand early voting. Republicans argued it was overreaching.

On Friday, the Justice Department announced it would sue Georgia over its new election laws, which the agency said make it harder to vote, particularly for Black voters.

Advocates are pressing state lawmakers, the Biden administration and lawmakers in Congress to protect access to the polls by supporting voting rights bills and push back against states adopting more restrictive election laws. They also back the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would essentially restore a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that required states with a history of discrimination to get federal clearance before making election changes. That provision was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 in its Shelby v. Holder ruling because the majority of justices said it was unconstitutional. Lewis, who died in July, was a Freedom Rider and congressman from Georgia.

“This is game day,’’ LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, told USA TODAY in an interview Friday aboard one of the buses. “We’re at the fork in the road where we will either go down the road of peril as it relates to democracy or we’re going to go down the road of great possibilities and promise.”

The national fight over voting rights is expected to be a major issue ahead of the 2022 midterm elections as more states led by Republican lawmakers pass restrictive election laws. Many were spurred by former President Donald Trump's unfounded claims that he lost the election because of voter fraud.

Diallo Brooks, a national field director for People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., said President Joe Biden should do more to persuade his former Senate colleagues to support the bills.

“We want the president to lean in with everything he can and the White House can do,‘’ he said. “It’s really urgent.”

More: Harris' steps into high-wire act on voting rights as pressure builds on election bills

'It ain't over till it's over'

Organizers of the bus tour gathered Friday for a rally at Monroe Park in Richmond. Food trucks offered free fried fish, pulled pork sandwiches, macaroni and cheese and more.

Among the speakers was Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, 79, a former Freedom Rider who said she’s disappointed the fight to protect voting rights is still underway.

“It ain’t over till it’s over,’’ said Trumpauer Mulholland. “It’s a crying shame. ... We just have to keep pushing back.’’

Richard Walker, founder and CEO of Bridging the Gap, set up tables to help formerly incarcerated residents register to vote. He estimates thousands don’t know their voting rights have been restored. Many of them, he said, are people of color.

For 8-year-old Ysarael Binns of Atlanta, the fight for voting rights should be expanded to include more young people. “Grown-ups shouldn’t be the only ones who can vote,’’ she said.

Shenita Binns, Ysarael’s mother, said it was important to bring her on the trip so she could see what their ancestors braved in the fight for voting rights. “She is our future,’’ said Binns, 42.

Hours later, organizers held a vigil Friday night in front of the U.S. Supreme Court to mark the eighth anniversary of the Shelby v. Holder decision.

They also used the tour to recognize Juneteenth, now a federal holiday marking the day news of the Emancipation Proclamation reached Texas on June 19, 1865, and to advocate for statehood for Washington, D.C., with a rally Saturday on the National Mall.

Cliff Albright, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, said the decision paved the way for the wave of states now adopting restrictive election laws.

“It was the Shelby decision that literally opened up the flood gates for Jim Crow voter suppression, and we’re fighting against that right now,’’ he said. He complained all three branches of government haven't done enough to protect voting rights.

"This is an equal-opportunity failure,'' he said.

Vincent Ambrosino traveled from Arizona with four busloads of people from Unite Here Local 11 to attend the vigil at the Supreme Court and the rally on the National Mall.

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a pair of cases from Arizona that could determine, among other things, when states may limit voting.

“I want change,’’ said Ambrosino, 56. “Nobody should be (blocked) from voting.”

More: Supreme Court's conservatives question effort to unwind voting laws that critics say discriminate

More: Arizonans to participate in 'Freedom Rides' to DC in support of voting-rights bill

More: Juneteenth is a celebration of freedom from slavery. But it didn't mean freedom for all.

Stephanie Williams flew in from Kalamazoo, Michigan, to join the rallies in Richmond and Washington. Williams, the coordinator for the Black Women’s Roundtable in Kalamazoo, said it’s important to give voters tools to challenge restrictive election laws.

“At the end of the day, some folks have just pulled their sheets off and are looking us in our face and saying, ‘What ya’ll going to do?'” Williams said.

Gebresilassie, of Protect the Vote GA, said the trip supported her group's mission to protect rights in Georgia, which has long been in the spotlight over civil rights and voting barriers.

“We know the fight continues,'' said Gebresilassie, who sported a T-shirt with a picture of Lewis, the civil rights icon, on it. “But if they could get us to this point where today we are able to come together in unity and continue the Freedom Ride tradition, we can take it to the next level for the next generation.”

Contributing: John Fritze

Follow Deborah Berry on Twitter: @dberrygannett

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Voting rights groups honor Freedom Riders with rally through South

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