New 'Freedom Riders' march to D.C. in last leg of voting rights journey

·7 min read

WASHINGTON — On a grassy plot of the National Mall, in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol, thousands of voting rights supporters arrived on buses, on foot and even on horseback.

The “we the people” at last week's rally on Washington, D.C., statehood and voting rights comprised a coalition of races, genders, generations and geography. From students to clergy to members of Congress, about 2,500 people descended upon the nation’s capital to defend what the late congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis described as “the precious, almost sacred” right to vote. Folded into that sentiment was the demand that the residents of Washington, D.C., must also be recognized as full citizens through statehood.

District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser championed the call for statehood, while others decried voter suppression and a wave of legislation that followed the 2020 election. Lawmakers in 48 states have collectively introduced at least 389 bills that would curb or restrict voting. Days later, the Supreme Court would uphold Arizona's new restrictions on voter access. Democrats charge that the mostly Republican-led measures will disproportionately impact Black voters, young voters and communities of color.

“We, the engines of democracy, refuse to be silent,” said Judith Browne Dianis, executive director of the Advancement Project, a national racial justice group, to the crowd. “Together we will make our voices heard. We are not going back.”

Waving protest signs and clad in identical red T-shirts were 1,500 mostly Black and Latino workers with the hospitality union UNITE HERE. They traveled by bus from 21 states across the country for the rally. The group marched in chanting, “We are Freedom Riders!” and “No justice! No peace!”

Image: Local voting rights activists join a Rally for D.C. Statehood, the last stop of Black Voters Matter Freedom Ride for Voting Rights bus tour, at the National Mall June 26, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)
Image: Local voting rights activists join a Rally for D.C. Statehood, the last stop of Black Voters Matter Freedom Ride for Voting Rights bus tour, at the National Mall June 26, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)

“Voting is fundamental to working people’s power,” said UNITE HERE International President D. Taylor. “People’s lives and futures are at stake. No one should ever underestimate the determination of the people.”

Even as protesters urged bold action around making Washington, D.C., the 51st state and stronger protections needed at the ballot box, parts of the event unfolded with the vibe of a summer festival. Some attendees sat sprawled under the shade of wide leafy trees, while others tried to stay cool under rows of white tents that billowed like sails. There was folk music and spoken word, and the district’s homegrown go-go music blared funky beats from speakers.

The demonstration under a scorching midday sun was organized by Black Voters Matter, an advocacy and policy organization, and some 50 local and national civil rights, voting empowerment and social justice groups.

The weekend action wrapped up BVM’s “Freedom Ride for Voting Rights,” which paid homage to the 60-year anniversary of the original Freedom Rides of 1961 while providing education and outreach around 21st century voting rights.

Kicking off on the new federal holiday Juneteenth, the nine-city tour aimed to increase support for federal voting rights legislation, build Black voting power and advocate for statehood for Washington, D.C., with a population of nearly 700,000 residents. Traveling aboard their signature fleet of coaches nicknamed the “Blackest buses in America,” the new Freedom Riders officially began in Mississippi, then motored through Southern states including Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas.

BVM co-founders LaTosha Brown and Cliff Albright met with concerned residents, officials and partners to discuss issues impacting their communities. Their fight for voting justice and progress comes at an opportune time as policymakers, advocates, activists and fellow keepers of democracy converge around this critical issue.

June brought major events on this front. There was a Senate hearing on Washington, D.C., statehood and a failed Senate procedural vote on the For the People Act to expand voting rights that drew no Republican support. This month also marked eight years since the 2013 landmark Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, which gutted portions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

“That decision ushered in a new era of Jim Crow as states rushed to exploit the ruling and attack Black voting rights,” Brown said. “And with dozens of statehouses considering even more restrictions on ballot access, our communities continue to feel the impact today.”

The Department of Justice announced earlier this month that it filed a lawsuit against the state of Georgia, its secretary of state and the state’s election board over a new law critics say restricts access to voting; Gov. Brian Kemp signed the measure in March.

“The right of all eligible citizens to vote is the central pillar of our democracy, the right from which all other rights ultimately flow,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said at a news conference on Friday. “This lawsuit is the first step of many we are taking to ensure that all eligible voters can cast a vote, that all lawful votes are counted and that every voter has access to accurate information.”

Image: Black Voters Matter national rally in support of DC statehood, in Washington (Elizabeth Frantz / Reuters)
Image: Black Voters Matter national rally in support of DC statehood, in Washington (Elizabeth Frantz / Reuters)

The DOJ complaint contends that several provisions of Senate Bill 202 were adopted to purposefully curb voting rights based on race. The lawsuit “alleges that the cumulative and discriminatory effect of these laws—particularly on Black voters—was known to lawmakers and that lawmakers adopted the law despite this,” according to a statement by the DOJ.

The suit challenges several provisions, including one that bans government entities from distributing unsolicited absentee ballot applications and another regarding the imposition of fines on civic organizations, churches and advocacy groups that distribute follow-up absentee ballot applications.

It also challenges deadlines to request absentee ballots; requirements related to state identification; limits on drop boxes for absentee ballots; barring churches and civic groups from providing food or water to people waiting in long lines to vote and more. The lawsuit asks the court to prohibit Georgia from enforcing these requirements.

Kristen Clarke, the first Black woman to serve as assistant attorney general for the department’s Civil Rights Division, vowed in her remarks at DOJ headquarters that the department will use “all the tools it has available to ensure that each eligible citizen can register, cast a ballot and have that ballot counted free from racial discrimination.”

“Laws adopted with a racially motivated purpose, like Georgia Senate Bill 202, simply have no place in democracy today,” she said.

The BVM team agreed.

“More than three months after we joined partners to file our own lawsuit against the state of Georgia for its voter suppression bill, it's encouraging to see the Department of Justice and the Biden-Harris administration stand with the people,” Albright said. “With this historic announcement, the federal government is taking an important step toward defending the rights of Black voters. … This move will hopefully set a new precedent and send a strong message to state legislatures.”

Brown added, “We’ve always known that these voter restriction bills were unconstitutional at their core.” The DOJ lawsuit is, Brown said, “not only an affirmation of the work we do each and every day to protect voting rights; it’s a stern warning to other states. Any state or local governments pursuing voter suppression legislation must be prepared to defend Jim Crow in court, because we simply will not let this go.”

While Black men and, later, women were granted the right to vote through constitutional amendments, barriers such as literacy tests, intimidation and violence heavily restricted Black Americans from access to the polls for decades.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965, signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson, outlawed discriminatory practices adopted by many Southern states. Today, as voting access is in jeopardy, BVM leaders said their "Freedom Ride for Voting Rights" tour was timely and impactful. Meeting former Freedom Riders who participated in the desegregation protests of the early 1960s, and a host of people representing different ages and races, also served as an act of unity and love.

Still, the organizers pledged additional activism until victory is won.

“We are urging the Biden-Harris administration and members of Congress to continue to stand up for voters and protect our voting power through the passage of the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act,” Albright said.

“We need to dismantle all barriers that prevent free and fair access to the ballot box,” Brown added. “The fight continues.”

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