As I reflect on the assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers 57 years ago this week, I look forward to the day when my job will no longer exist.
As deputy legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Voting Rights Practice Group, I advocate for equal voting rights and fight voter suppression.
If my work is truly successful, then one day there will no longer be a need for it, and that will be the best way to honor Evers’ legacy.
Evers, a civil rights activist was assassinated on June 12, 1963, by a Ku Klux Klan member.
It is my sincere hope that one day everyone in America will have the unfettered right to vote. It’s the same kind of hope that Evers displayed when he returned from fighting for his country in World War II to vote in an election even though he and his friends were turned away from the polling place at gunpoint.
He was targeted because of his activism to end Jim Crow, expand educational opportunities for Black children, and protect voting rights, among other achievements. As the first state field secretary of the NAACP in Mississippi, he tirelessly led marches, prayer vigils, voter registration drives and boycotts, and persistently appealed to Black and white people to work together for a peaceful solution to social problems.
Backed by federal troops, he led efforts to help James Meredith successfully integrate the University of Mississippi in 1962.
He organized a major boycott of white merchants, making him a target of the Ku Klux Klan. Byron De La Beckwith, a segregationist and member of the Ku Klux Klan, shot and killed Evers in cold blood. Although Beckwith was arrested for the crime, two all-white juries could not reach a verdict in 1964. He was finally convicted of the murder 30 years later, after which he remained in prison until his death in 2001 at age 80.
Evers’ house in Jackson, Mississippi, which still bears a hole in the wall from the bullet that ended his life – has been designated a national historic landmark.
Inspired by sacrifice
My passion for political participation started from a more global, human rights centered perspective. My parents are from Ghana and my dad was very active in the Pan-African movement. He advocated for the release of prisoners whose only crime was daring to demand the right to vote and have a say in their destiny.
I remember the day when Nelson Mandela – the first Black president of South Africa who had previously spent 27 years in prison for his anti-apartheid work – was freed in 1990. I marveled at the long lines of people wrapping around street corners to vote for him.
On the other side of the globe, in 2008, we saw people come out in droves to elect and then celebrate the first Black president in America. These are indeed concrete signs of progress and major events that Evers knew were possible, but would not live to witness himself.
Throughout my career, I have come to realize – like Evers did – that nearly everything in the multifaceted fight for civil rights boils down to this: Elected officials continue to promote policies that are totally at odds with their constituents’ needs and often violate their civil and human rights.
Unfortunately, we continue to live in a separate and unequal society as evidenced in our neighborhoods, schools, jobs and – perhaps most horrifying – in our prisons and jails. Our current criminal justice system is one of the most inhumane examples of how racial discrimination operates and can ruin people’s lives forever.
As we’ve seen in the cases of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and countless others, it is a criminal justice system that can literally kill you.
When you add laws that prohibit people with a criminal conviction from voting, it’s practically the same system as during slavery – Black people who have lost their freedom and cannot vote. And without access to the ballot, a victim of the system cannot elect the very officials pulling the levers to hire the police, determine which cases are prosecuted and what sentences are imposed. As our recent report found in Alabama, there are many ways in which elected officials are still suppressing the vote in the 21st century.
The daily struggle
At the SPLC, we’ve sued the states of Florida and Mississippi whose felon disenfranchisement laws were expanded for the primary purpose of denying as many Black citizens the right to vote as possible. We were successful in challenging a poll tax law in Florida in which the court held that requiring people who lack the financial means to pay off certain debts cannot be the basis for denying them the right to vote. We’ve also sued Alabama and Louisiana because of their onerous absentee ballot laws in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, we are also implementing a new model of community engagement, where we really listen and respond to what the community’s needs are and implement effective means to address the problems that people are experiencing.
We are educating as many people as possible about their voting rights, as we did with our get-out-the-vote efforts in Mississippi and Florida. We have reignited our SPLC on Campus program through the distribution of voting materials, recruitment and training of college students as election protection volunteers, organizing events (now more virtually) related to the census and redistricting, and listening to young people to understand the issues they care about and connecting them with the resources to advance their own agendas.
We’re also working on a vote-from-jail project that will increase access to the polls for people who are incarcerated but still eligible to cast a ballot. We are working with our colleagues to promote progressive legislation that will expand voters’ rights both on the state and federal levels, especially with respect to strengthening the Voting Rights Act.
It’s critical work. The need for it was recently exemplified in Fulton County, Georgia, as long lines of voters waited for hours – at once an atrocious example of the mismanagement of a critical government function and a beautiful display of the American spirit as people of all races and ages endured the heat or storm clouds to cast a ballot.
It’s also a reminder that we must ensure that the work of Medgar Evers – and others who stood up for our right to vote – was not in vain. At the end of the day, Evers was an organizer. He mobilized people who were afraid that merely saying no to the next indignity would result in their death. He did it peacefully and because of his love for all of humanity.
In terms of my role at the SPLC, he taught me that electing a particular candidate is not the end goal. The true destination is living in a world of mutual respect and peace. Politicians enjoy great power, but that power ultimately comes from the people which is why the mantra “Power to the People” still resonates with so many of us today.
Photo by Associated Press