By Danielle Ayers
“Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?” Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer
These are the final words in the testimony of Mother Fannie Lou Hamer before the Credentials Committee at the Democratic National Convention in August of 1964. She testified to the horror of her own physical and socio-economic trauma and the ongoing collective intimidation of Blacks in Mississippi who dared to register to vote.
The summer of 1964, popularly known as Freedom Summer, was both an exciting and dangerous time in Mississippi. It was exciting because Blacks were asserting their God-given right to take part in America’s espoused view of the right for American citizens to take part in the democratic process of voting. The boldness and willingness of Hamer and countless others to lay their lives on the line in order to secure the right to vote, free of intimidation and political games, is a legacy that we are proud of and must continue to draw from.
The intimidation and political games have not gone away, however. In the 21st century they exist in different iterations. Nevertheless, they are just as harmful and have the same goal – preclude communities of color from the political process, gaining political power and voting people of color into office who will have a say in the way resources are distributed and how society is ordered. As a consequence, it is imperative for faith communities to be involved in voter engagement campaigns from local to national elections.
We should not limit our voter engagement efforts to midterms and presidential elections. Voter engagement includes registering people to vote, organizing and mobilizing communities to show up at the polls, voter verification, developing an disseminating voter rights and educational guides (hard copies and electronically), hosting candidate forums, creating social media campaigns around critical issues and how these issues impact people and communities, and provide a breakdown of the political implications of each political offices – such as informing the community on the power of a district attorney. Faith communities can play a significant role in influencing whether communities will flourish or fail.
The state of Texas remains in a long battle over district maps. Texas has engaged in the practice of gerrymandering (redistricting to gain/maintain political power) and is also a state that must receive preclearance when it wants to change voting and elections laws.
“In 2010, a conservative backlash to President Barack Obama put Republicans in charge of legislatures and governorships across the country. They quickly passed new voter ID requirements, restrictions on early voting and same-day registration, and other measures that have been found to reduce voting among minorities, the poor, young people and the elderly. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, by the time of the 2012 elections, 19 states had passed 25 restrictive voting laws.” Some of the new laws were blocked by the Justice Department (preclearance section in the Voting Rights Act). (Source: https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2017/05/supreme-court-voting-rights-texas/)
However, in 2013, the Supreme Court ruled (Shelby County vs Holder) that preclearance was “outdated and therefore unconstitutional.” After the Supreme Court’s decision, “no state moved more quickly than Texas to implement a wish list of election reforms that had been blocked under preclearance.” These are some of the ways physical intimidation; murder, and blatant political games such as literacy tests have simply transformed into new methods — gerrymandering, oppressive voter ID laws, closing polling locations, etc. After a round of appeals by the state of Texas, in April 2108 a federal appeals court upheld Texas’ voter identification law citing that it does not discriminate against Black and Hispanic voters.
This ruling makes the 2020 Census critical. Lines will more than likely be redrawn, so we must be involved (working/volunteering) in the Census to make sure we are counted. The Census is a political act that will have a direct impact on voting process and consequently, who will sit in various political offices.
At Friendship West Baptist Church, pastored by Rev. Dr. Frederick D. Haynes, III, we take the voter engagement movement seriously. For more than two decades, we have registered people to vote (even at the time people joined our faith community). We collaborate in voter turnout initiatives, check voter status, verify polling locations, distribute electoral education guides, host candidate forums, vet political candidates, canvass neighborhoods, provide critical information on election day, and encourage people to work as election judges and poll watchers.
We understand that voting matters, and it is not antithetical to serve God, follow Jesus, and lead voter engagement activities. If our votes did not count, there would not be an ongoing effort to either eliminate voters’ ability to vote and/or make it difficult to participate in the democratic process of voting. We have and continue to engage in multiple efforts to educate, equip and empower the church and community to be more deeply engaged in the process, from registering to vote to holding elected officials accountable once in office.
Friendship West Baptist Church and countless other churches continue to mobilize and organize in the sprit of our ancestors and freedom freighters who led Freedom Summer. We cannot turn a blind eye to the public and political assaults on people of color. Faith communities must connect the dots and discern the ways that power structures continue to produce different iterations of intimidation in an effort to maintain power and control over resources. Faith communities should seek opportunities to collaborate with multiple non-partisan organizations in an effort to build capacity and share resources as well as establish their on framework for voter engagement activities grounded in a theology that does not separate the body form the soul. God cares about what takes place in our daily lives.
Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where elected officials levy assaults against Black candidates running for office, where those in power seek ways to deny people their fundamental right to vote by closing polling locations in communities of color, drawing maps that dilute our collective voting power because we want the right to vote for people who will advance and protect our well being and make public policy decisions that distributes resources that are life giving and life sustaining, in America?
— Danielle Ayers is minister of justice at Friendship-West Baptist Church in Dallas.