Senate said no to voting rights. Here's how civil rights activists are reigniting the fight

·7 min read

WASHINGTON – Civil rights activists are ramping up efforts to press Congress to advance voting rights legislation, including returning to the site where the late Rep. John Lewis led a historic march for voting rights more than 50 years ago.

“We’re still in this fight,’’ said LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter. “This is a time of reckoning.”

Black Voters Matter and other civil rights groups will retrace the 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, that garnered national attention in March 1965. The landmark Voting Rights Act was signed into law that summer.

The march is one of several efforts planned after the Senate failed earlier this month to advance federal voting rights legislation that included a bill named after Lewis. Voting rights groups also plan to host rallies across the country, launch social media campaigns and urge people to call Senate offices.

The Rev. Leah Daughtry, campaign manager for Fighting for Our Vote, said her coalition of labor unions, the ACLU and civil rights groups will redouble its efforts to get Congress to pass federal voting legislation.

“It renews our fervor, renews our commitment,’’ she said of the failed Senate vote. “If anything, I'm going to work harder than I've ever worked to ensure that we don't have to have this kind of vote again.”

For months, activists have held rallies, marched and went on hunger strikes in their effort to get Congress to support voting rights protections and push back against states adopting restrictive election laws.

While the rallies have drawn attention, activists said some of the next moves center around the symbolism of the decades-long fight for voting rights.

The march in Alabama is a “call to action,’’ said Brown.

The event commemorates "Bloody Sunday,'' when peaceful protesters, including Lewis, crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge were brutally beaten by police.

Lewis led an annual congressional pilgrimage there to mark the anniversary and activists this year will participate in a five-day reenactment. Black Voters Matter will lead the group through a 10-mile stretch through Lowndes County, where the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and others worked in the 1960s to register Black residents to vote.

“We’re acknowledging that the work that they did was not in vain,” Brown said.

More: 'Work is still unfinished': Younger civil rights activists vow to continue work of Rep. John Lewis

More: Heirs to late civil rights icon John Lewis' vow to make 'good trouble' in fight over election laws

More: Americans stood up to racism in 1961 and changed history. This is their fight, in their words.

Activists put spotlight on 1960s voting battles

Actions are also planned for other key dates in civil rights history, including a rally on April 4 led by the Rev. Jesse Jackson. That date marks the day Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated in 1968. The rally will be held in West Virginia, the home state of Sen. Joe Manchin. Manchin is one of two Democratic senators, along with Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who have refused to support a change in Senate rules that would allow a vote on the voting rights legislation.

Rev. Jesse Jackson carried an American flag outside the Glynn County Courthouse on Nov. 18, 2021, after adjournment of daily court proceedings in the trial for the killers of Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Ga.
Rev. Jesse Jackson carried an American flag outside the Glynn County Courthouse on Nov. 18, 2021, after adjournment of daily court proceedings in the trial for the killers of Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Ga.

Other rallies have been planned for Aug. 6, when the 1965 Voting Rights Act was signed into law; on July 17, when Lewis died in 2020; and Oct. 6, the birthday of civil rights legend Fannie Lou Hamer.

Barbara Arnwine, president and founder of the Transformative Justice Coalition, a social justice advocacy group, said the Senate vote has spurred more people to get off the sidelines.

“They just expected that the Senate would do its job,’’ she said. “Now they're just absolutely floored, flabbergasted, but mostly angry and ready to fight.”

Activists are also continuing to lobby Democratic and Republican lawmakers to reach a compromise on voting rights legislation, said Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP. He would not say which lawmakers are involved in negotiations.

Democrats have argued federal action is needed to better protect voting rights. Republicans have charged Democrats with trying to take control of elections from states.

“It isn’t about ‘voting rights,’” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in December, “it’s a naked power grab.”

Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP, in the blue cap, listens to Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., address a crowd March 1 on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala.
Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP, in the blue cap, listens to Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., address a crowd March 1 on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala.

The Senate vote blocked a measure that combined voting rights bills, including the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which sought to restore provisions in the Voting Rights Act requiring states with a history of voting discrimination to get federal approval before making election changes.

“The vote was not the finale of the discussion,’’ said Johnson, noting that it took three attempts before the 1965 Voting Rights Act was passed.

More: Democrats and Republicans are battling over voting rights in Congress and at statehouses. Which side will win?

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

Darrick Alvarez, a community organizer for GALEO, shared election information Dec. 4, 2021, in Savannah, Ga. GALEO and the GALEO Latino Community Development Fund are sending information to voters to explain some of the state's new election changes.
Darrick Alvarez, a community organizer for GALEO, shared election information Dec. 4, 2021, in Savannah, Ga. GALEO and the GALEO Latino Community Development Fund are sending information to voters to explain some of the state's new election changes.

New laws could suppress voters of color, activists say

Activists said they're also taking steps to help voters navigate new state election laws in states like Georgia and Texas, where lawmakers in mostly Republican-controlled legislatures have adopted elections changes, including reducing early voting periods. Republicans say the measures help protect against fraud.

Arnwine, of the Transformative Justice Coalition, said voting rights groups are reminding Texas residents that the deadline to register to vote in the primary is Monday and updating them about election changes, including a ban on drive-thru voting and 24-hour polling sites. Activists said many voters of color used the options last election. Residents will vote this year for governor and members of Congress.

“Texas is a real problem,” said Arnwine.

Caroline Fan, president and founder of the Missouri Asian American Youth Foundation, said her group will continue to urge state and federal lawmakers to support voting rights protections by sending emails, calling lawmakers and submitting testimony for committee hearings. Missouri has adopted several election changes, including a new requirement that mail-in ballots be notarized.

"Our Legislature keeps on piling up the barriers and making it harder for Missourians to have our voices be heard," Fan said.

In Georgia, the GALEO Latino Community Development Fund is launching a media campaign and sending mailers to help voters understand new requirements under what the group’s CEO Jerry Gonzalez called the “Jim Crow 2.0’’ election laws adopted by the state.

Georgia's new law limits the number of mail drop boxes in a county, requires ID for voters to receive an absentee ballot and bans groups from handing out money or gifts, including water and food, to voters in line.

“Our lift is a heavy lift in Georgia,” said Gonzalez. "We don't have the voting rights protections that we need ...to freely access the ballot in Georgia.’’

Sami Watson, field coordinator for the Hamkae Center civic engagement team, which serves Asian American communities in Virginia, said her group is working to prevent state lawmakers from rolling back election changes that made it easier to vote in 2020. These include proposals seeking to shorten early voting periods and reinstate voter ID requirements.

The group is also reaching out to voters in Vietnamese, Korean, Hindi, Arabic and other languages.

“We really want to make sure that everyone has the chance to participate in democracy,’’ Watson said.

Sami Watson (left) and Ha Nguyen (right) from Hamkae Center volunteered June 8, 2021 at a polling site in Herndon, Va. The center is reaching out to Asian American voters to provide election information. "We want to make sure that marginalized communities, including the AAPI community, have a voice in their government,’’ said Watson. (Courtesy of the Hamkae Center)
Sami Watson (left) and Ha Nguyen (right) from Hamkae Center volunteered June 8, 2021 at a polling site in Herndon, Va. The center is reaching out to Asian American voters to provide election information. "We want to make sure that marginalized communities, including the AAPI community, have a voice in their government,’’ said Watson. (Courtesy of the Hamkae Center)

Get-out-the-vote campaigns will target people of color

Many activists said state efforts to restrict access to the polls could spur more voters, particularly in communities of color, to turn out.

“There is often a boomerang effect to attacks on voting rights,’’ said Ben Jealous, president of People For the American Way, a liberal advocacy group. “A lot of voters, ironically, don't realize how important their vote is until somebody else tries to steal it, somebody else tries to suppress it.”

The group plans to intensify get-out-the-vote campaigns it used in 2020, including targeting Black males and younger voters by knocking on doors, peer-to-peer texting and targeted advertisements.

“It really does raise the stakes on the midterm elections,’’ Jealous said.

Activists said if necessary they will join legal challenges to restrictive election laws and launch economic boycotts. This month, Faith for Black Lives called for the NFL to move next year’s Super Bowl out of Arizona because of its new election laws, which would, among other things, remove some voters from the "early active voting list."

Brown said her group will also return to Capitol Hill to press senators.

“We will still hold them accountable,'' she said. "Just because this failed this time, it’s not over. Our deadline is not until victory.”

Contributing: Mabinty Quarshie

Follow Deborah Berry on Twitter: @dberrygannett

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Voting rights activists plan protests in Selma, other historic sites