Living on water and broth: Voting rights activists turn to 'political and moral' hunger strikes

·8 min read

WASHINGTON – Joe Madison was so tired Wednesday night – one of the lingering effects of 73 days on a hunger strike – that the radio show host went to bed at 5 p.m. and slept through the long-awaited Senate vote on voting rights legislation.

He woke at 2 a.m. to learn the Senate failed to advance the measure. His disappointment turned to anger at Democratic Sens. Krysten Sinema and Joe Manchin then at Sen. Tim Scott and every other Republican senator who didn't support a rule change to advance the legislation. He decided to end his hunger strike.

“I knew that we now have to move forward with another strategy,’’ he said, adding that he had no regrets about his hunger strike. “There’s been an awakening. That’s part of the success.”

Madison wasn’t alone. Other activists, including faith leaders and students across the country, have gone on hunger strikes to draw attention to their fight to protect voting rights and press state and federal lawmakers to support bills that provide more access to the polls.

“We had to do more,” said Shana Gallagher, co-founder of Un-PAC, a nonpartisan student and youth pro-democracy organization. “It’s not a partisan issue. It’s an American issue. Our lives and our futures are on the line.”

The tactic harkens to one used by activists during the 1960s civil rights movement, when they also pushed for more voting rights.

“It was a tool that is consistent with this idea of passive resistance, that I'm going to use nonviolent nonconfrontational means … to illustrate the high moral ground, to illustrate my plight,’’ said Howard Robinson, an archivist at Alabama State University and a scholar on the civil rights movement.

Hunger strikes weren’t used alone, but, along with other tactics and strategies, helped raise awareness about the lack of voter rights for Black citizens, Robinson said.

Madison said a hunger strike can be worth the sacrifice, especially if it raises awareness and spurs others to act.

“It depends on number one, whether or not they get the attention from those that you are trying to influence, in particular people in power,’’ he said. “They're effective if you can show people that sacrifices have to be made in every movement.’’

Joe Madison, a talk show host and civil rights activist, spoke Dec. 13, 2022 to group of mostly students who were on a hunger strike and protesting at a park in front of the White House. The group wanted President Joe Biden to prioritize the push for voting rights legislation.
Joe Madison, a talk show host and civil rights activist, spoke Dec. 13, 2022 to group of mostly students who were on a hunger strike and protesting at a park in front of the White House. The group wanted President Joe Biden to prioritize the push for voting rights legislation.

‘We didn’t lose’

Madison, a civil rights activist and host of "Joe Madison The Black Eagle,” watched as efforts to get Congress to pass federal voting rights measures didn't get far enough. In November, he decided to go on a hunger strike, a tactic he used before to raise awareness about social justice issues.

“The movement needed to up its game,” said Madison, 72.

For months, he survived on water, broth and an occasional smoothie. He dropped from 194 pounds to 169 pounds. He was tired, cranky and weak, but still did his morning show on SiriusXM’s Urban View. His hunger strike garnered national media attention.

“The purpose of a hunger strike is political and moral,” he said.

Madison said fellow activists, including Martin Luther King, Jr.’s eldest son, veterans of the civil rights movement and some members of Congress called to encourage him.

“We didn't lose,’’ he said. “You have 48 Democratic senators that stuck together and only two that Jesus couldn't move them.”

More importantly, Madison said, young people paid attention and many now know what a filibuster is and the positions of Democrats and Republicans.

“The sleeping giant is a new generation of activists and advocates,” he said.

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‘Strengthening your resolve’

Much like in the 1960’s, hunger strikes can be successful if used with other tactics such as lobbying, political mobilization, marches and writing letters, said Robinson of Alabama State University.

During the Freedom Rides in 1961, hundreds of activists rode buses through the South to fight against segregation on interstate travel. Many were jailed in a Mississippi prison where some went on hunger strikes.

In Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965, thousands of college students came to the city in the aftermath of ‘’Bloody Sunday,’’ a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge from Selma to Montgomery where protesters were beaten by law enforcement officers. Some of those arrested began hunger strikes, said Robinson.

Hunger strikes were “a way of strengthening your resolve, illustrating your resolve to your adversaries and then as a way to draw attention to your plight,’’ Robinson said.

He noted how the late civil rights activists Rep. John Lewis and Stokely Carmichael, who both served as chairmen of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, talked about participating in hunger strikes in books they wrote.

Other high-profile activists, including union leader Cesar Chavez and comedian Dick Gregory, also went on hunger strikes.

Madison had joined Gregory on some hunger strikes. He talked to Gregory’s son, Christian, before he launched this recent one.

“I started channeling Dick Gregory, asking what would Dick do?” Madison said.

Shana Gallagher of Un-PAC joined other hunger strikers and activists at a Jan. 13, 2022 press conference in front of the U.S. Capitol to demand that the Senate pass voting rights legislation.
Shana Gallagher of Un-PAC joined other hunger strikers and activists at a Jan. 13, 2022 press conference in front of the U.S. Capitol to demand that the Senate pass voting rights legislation.

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‘We were desperate’

Gallagher was still on a hunger strike when she was arrested Thursday for blocking a side of the U.S. Capitol during a protest over voting rights. It was her second arrest at the Capitol that week.

It was the day after the Senate failed to advance a measure that combined voting rights bills, including the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. The bill would, among other things, would restore provisions in the 1965 Voting Rights Act requiring states with a history of voting discrimination to obtain federal approval before making election changes.

“That was really devastating and infuriating,’’ said Gallagher of the vote. She said the protest was “to make a moral stand and make a moral statement."

Gallagher ended her hunger strike after her release Thursday, snacking on roasted brussells sprouts to ease back into eating solid foods. She said she had felt exhausted and numb during the hunger strike.

The group of mostly college students staged its first hunger strike Dec. 6 in Phoenix, where on day four they landed a Zoom meeting with Sen. Sinema of Arizona, one of two Democrats, along with Manchin of West Virginia, who have refused to support a change in the Senate rules to allow a vote on the measure.

The next day, some members of Un-PAC headed to Washington, D.C., and continued the group's 15-day strike in front of the White House. They didn’t think President Joe Biden hadn't done enough to push for action on voting rights legislation.

“We were desperate and we were nervous that the bill was going to fail,’’ said Gallagher, who is from Austin, Texas. “And that if we didn't do something to escalate and to take matters into our own hands, the campaign would not have enough momentum to have any chance of being successful in 2022.’’

Forty members of the group returned to Washington this month, worried the Senate would not pass a voting rights measure. They were days into another hunger strike when some were arrested Tuesday for crossing police lines at the U.S. Capitol. They protested outside while senators inside debated voting rights legislation.

“It wasn’t enough this time,’’ Gallagher said of their effort. “We will absolutely be back and continue organizing.”

Rev. Stephen A. Green (center), chair of Faith for Black Lives, and other activists talk to reporters Jan. 13, 2022 in front of the U.S. Capitol about the need for federal voting rights legislation.
Rev. Stephen A. Green (center), chair of Faith for Black Lives, and other activists talk to reporters Jan. 13, 2022 in front of the U.S. Capitol about the need for federal voting rights legislation.

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‘We went cold turkey’

Stephen A. Green hadn’t done a hunger strike before. The chair of Faith for Black Lives, a faith-based advocacy group, saw news of Madison and young people engaging in hunger strikes over voting rights. The group decided to join in.

“We just sort of went cold turkey,’’ said Green, pastor of St. Luke AME Church in New York. “We didn't sort of prepare because we all just decided to move swiftly on this because of the urgency of the moment.’’

The group started its hunger strike Jan. 6, surviving on mostly water, soup and broth, and ended it Monday, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The next day, 28 faith leaders, including Green, were also among those arrested Tuesday at the Capitol.

The faith leaders had been involved in pushing back against restrictive laws being adopted in the states, including sit-ins, rallies and marches. But Green said the “current crisis’’ required a different tactic.

“A hunger strike is a tactic that allows us to express our own personal sacrifice by raising the moral conscience of the nation to identify the realities of what we're facing,” he said.

The goal, said Green, was to also draw attention to the Senate vote Wednesday and rally allies and parishioners.

The hunger strike left Green weak and fatigued. He mostly wanted to sleep. He likened the effort to activists who fought for voting rights during the civil rights movement.

“We tried to lift up the moral problem to the nation and it seemed as though we have not been heard,’’ he said of the Senate vote. “But we do know from the life and example of John Lewis that you get back up and then one day you get across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Voting rights fight spurs activists to go on hunger strikes for action

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