The assault of the U.S. Capitol in January showed us the danger of people willing to gain power no matter what. The assault on voting rights by lawmakers across the country since then shows that danger has not passed.
Legislators in 43 states have filed more than 250 bills to restrict voting access, with many bill sponsors making false claims about the recent election won by President Joe Biden. This push to make it harder to vote is dangerous and discriminatory. And it seeks to undo decades of work for which Baptist ministers like Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, and C.T. Vivian bled.
As the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and public policy institute that tracks these bills noted in a recent report, “In a backlash to historic voter turnout in the 2020 general election, and grounded in a rash of baseless and racist allegations of voter fraud and election irregularities, legislators have introduced well over four times the number of bills to restrict voting access as compared to roughly this time last year.”
For the first 189 years of this country’s independence, we failed to live up to the democratic ideals we preached. Only with the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 did we actually enact basic democratic principles.
But that only happened because Vivian nonviolently confronted officials in Selma, Alabama, until Sherriff Jim Clark punched him on video on Feb. 15, 1965. That moment brought many faithful activists to town. Three days later, an officer shot and killed 26-year-old Jimmie Lee Jackson, an unarmed Black demonstrator who was a Baptist deacon.
Two weeks after Jackson’s murder, officers attacked peaceful marchers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the attack 56 years ago this Sunday when Lewis nearly died from the blows. Two days later, James Reeb, a White minister who joined the Selma marches after watching the “Bloody Sunday” images on TV, was beaten to death by segregationists.
Their blood cried out from the ground and into the halls of the U.S. Capitol. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 came as a result of these faithful, peaceful protesters.
But in the aftermath of White Supremacists violently attacking the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 while carrying Confederate and Christian flags, many lawmakers want to roll back voting rights. Many of the White politicians introducing such bills call themselves Christians even as they target the basic human rights of their Black neighbors.
Consider a particularly egregious bill in Georgia, the state that just sent to the U.S. Senate Raphael Warnock, the pastor of the Black Baptist church in Atlanta where King served as co-pastor. This Georgia bill would keep early voting in place for three weeks before election — but only on Monday-Saturday.
The move to end early voting on Sundays clearly targets Black churchgoers, who have long organized “souls to polls” events after worship to provide transportation for individuals who need assistance traveling to vote. As a result, Black voters account for a disproportionately-high percentage of Sunday voters in Georgia. Lawmakers in other states have similarly targeted Sunday early voting, much as these same states used to target Black voters with grandfather clauses, literacy tests, and poll taxes. There is nothing new under the sun.
It’s bad enough that this bill clearly targets voters due to their race. But it also targets voters due to their religious status. And this bill’s sponsor is a White deacon at a Southern Baptist church.
Black minister Timothy McDonald III of the First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta, sees the bill for exactly what it is.
“It’s a new form of voter suppression, the Klan in three-piece suits rather than white hoods,” he told the Associated Press. “They know the power of the Black vote, and their goal is to suppress that power.”
Too many deacons in our churches used to wear the white hoods. Now they file voter suppression bills. And this while some of the same politicians claim they stand for “religious liberty.” But to target Sunday voters is to target the Black church. Such bills profane the Sabbath.
If you can’t get enough votes to win an election, the proper response is not to storm the Capitol or try to stop citizens from voting. Make a better argument, organize more effectively, listen to voters, and stop pushing harmful policies.
To restrict voting rights is to view our neighbors as less than fully human. To fight to undo the work of Jackson, King, Lewis, Reeb, Vivian, and so many others is to join the mob that attacked our very democracy on Jan. 6. It is to reject the teaching to love our neighbor as ourselves.
So, if Jan. 6 and the flood of anti-voting rights bills teach us anything, it’s that the struggle continues. And that we must keep faithfully advocating for justice and equality. Lewis and Vivian joined that great cloud of witnesses on the same day last July, so we must continue their march.
As Vivian wrote in his autobiography that will be posthumously published later this month, the work remains unfinished.
“Our struggle for voting rights, for all of the human rights systematically denied us, continues,” he wrote. “We were dealing not with a legal matter but with a sickness, the disease of racism, this is the problem to which our energies must now be addressed.”