In 1962, Jimmie Lee Jackson’s grandfather attempted to register to vote in Marion, Alabama. But the 80-year-old Black man was turned away, and the injustice angered his grandson.
Three years later, the 26-year-old church deacon joined civil rights activists in a nighttime march in Marion, and the peaceful demonstrators were attacked by local police and state troopers. Amid the chaos, Jackson took shelter in a café with family members and others. State troopers followed and began beating the marchers with clubs. As Jackson tried to protect his mother from the blows, a trooper shot him in the stomach. He died eight days later, on Feb. 26, 1965.
Jackson’s murder galvanized activists who had made the nearby city of Selma the epicenter of the voting rights movement – and it inspired the legendary Selma-to-Montgomery march.
At a memorial service, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told a crowd of 2,000, “Jimmie Lee Jackson’s death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly to make the American dream a reality.”
Just days later – on what became known as “Bloody Sunday” – hundreds of marchers attempted to cross Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge on their way to Montgomery. A national TV audience witnessed the brutality of white lawmen – some charging on horseback – who fired tear gas and wielded nightsticks to beat back the marchers, among them future Congressman John Lewis, whose skull was fractured.
Propelled by the national outcry, Congress passed the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), and President Lyndon B. Johnson signed it into law the following August.
Now, 55 years later, continued police killings of Black people – amid a deadly pandemic and historic presidential election – have once again sparked demonstrations for racial justice across the U.S. and in Alabama. Activists in the state regularly march for justice in Hoover, Florence, Marshall County and elsewhere.
But awaiting any Alabama voter spurred to action is an election system that looks, in some ways, more like it did before the Voting Rights Act than after.
The law’s key provisions were gutted by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013, and a Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) report concluded earlier this year that voter suppression is “alive and well” in Alabama.
Amid this landscape, at least eight organizations are challenging Alabama’s new era of voter suppression, continuing the fight of Jimmie Lee Jackson and the civil rights marchers in Selma and around the state.
Now, they have significant financial support from the SPLC.
In the new Vote Your Voice initiative – a partnership with the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta – the SPLC is investing up to $30 million from its endowment in nonpartisan voter registration and mobilization over several election cycles in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi.
The grants are currently helping 40 nonprofit groups engage millions of voters across the South to exercise their basic right to vote and ensure that they can elect, and hold accountable, candidates who represent their values. The goals of Vote Your Voice are to support Black- and Latinx-led voter outreach organizations often ignored by traditional funders; support and prototype effective voter engagement strategies; and re-enfranchise returning citizens despite intentional bureaucratic challenges
“The fight for voting rights has always been a ground fight, one led by organizers in our local communities,” said SPLC Senior Staff Attorney Caren Short. “Voter suppression may look different now than it did in the early 20th century, but its purpose and impact is the same: to disenfranchise Black people, young people, those with low incomes and people with disabilities. The Vote Your Voice grantees are continuing the long fight against voter suppression that began in Alabama, working every day to ensure that the voices of all Alabamians are heard.”
A total of $10 million has been distributed in the first two rounds of grants: $505,000 in Alabama; $2,910,000 in Florida; $2,460,000 in Georgia; $1,210,000 in Louisiana; $1,205,000 in Mississippi; $500,000 for a project focused on Alabama and Georgia; and $1,210,000 for multi-state projects.
Victory and defeat: historical voter suppression in Alabama
For nearly 50 years after Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965, the law reined in suppressive voting policies in the South.
The provision of the VRA known as “preclearance” was the most effective. Under that provision, all jurisdictions in areas with a history of racist voter suppression had to give notice to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) – and receive clearance – before any changes to election laws or voting procedures could go into effect.
If a proposed change – such the closure of polling places or a statewide voter identification law – was likely to discriminate against people historically subject to voter suppression, the DOJ could block it. And it did many times: Between 1965 and 2014, the DOJ stopped more than 100 proposed voting changes in Alabama alone.
In 1970, for instance, the state attempted to require voters who requested an absentee ballot to complete a written questionnaire without assistance. In effect, it was a literacy test. The DOJ blocked the change.
In 1981, Wilcox County notified the DOJ of its plan to purge and re-identify voters. “The burden cast by this process upon blacks would be much greater than on whites and would make it much more difficult for registered blacks to preserve their voting status,” a DOJ memo reads. The plan was blocked.
And in 2008, the city of Calera attempted to annex surrounding districts and re-draw district lines in a way that eliminated the city’s only majority Black district. “[Calera] appears to have failed to consider how the African-American population would be fairly reflected in the post-annexation election system,” a Justice Department official wrote. The annexation and redistricting plan was blocked.
Things changed dramatically in 2013.
In Shelby v. Holder – a case that originated in Alabama – the U.S. Supreme Court held in a 5-to-4 vote that the formula used to determine which geographic areas were subject to preclearance was unconstitutional. As a result, though the concept of preclearance survived, it was eradicated in practice.
In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that the court’s majority had been shortsighted. Casting aside the requirement for preclearance, she argued, was “like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
Following the court’s decision, a flood of potentially discriminatory election changes swept the South.
Alabama quickly implemented a strict voter identification law. Annexations, redistricting and the creation of new school districts – which might have been subject to preclearance – were all allowed to move forward.
Strikingly, in 2015, the state slashed service to one day a month at 31 driver’s license offices, many of them located in rural areas with large Black populations. That raised a barrier to obtaining the proper ID needed to vote. At the same time, elected officials continued to raise false alarms about “voter fraud.”
Shortly before the 2016 election, Alabama’s top election official, Secretary of State John Merrill, summed up the new reality in an interview with a documentary filmmaker.
“If you’re too sorry or lazy to get up off of your rear and to go register to vote, or to register electronically, and then to go vote, then you don’t deserve that privilege,” he said. “As long as I’m secretary of state of Alabama, you’re going to have to show some initiative to become a registered voter in this state.”
Voter suppression in 2020
Today, Alabama continues to resist measures to make voting easier, such as automatic voter registration. But some progress has been made.
In 2017, the Alabama Legislature partially addressed the disenfranchisement of people who have been convicted of felonies. A new law, for the first time, enumerated the crimes of “moral turpitude” that can lead to disenfranchisement, a holdover from the Jim Crow era. Previously, county registrars applied their own definition of such crimes when determining whether a person was eligible to vote. The old method was arbitrary and ripe for discrimination.
Though state officials failed to effectively publicize the change, the Alabama Voting Rights Project – a project of the Campaign Legal Center and the SPLC – has helped thousands of people restore their voting rights.
As the coronavirus pandemic put the spotlight on voter access, Merrill – who has previously supported no-excuse absentee voting – also opened absentee voting to people concerned about the virus. And, while Alabamians have long been able to vote “absentee in person” at courthouses, many more appear to be lining up this year than before, encouraged by officials, parties and campaigns.
Still, Alabama does not make voting easy. Legal advocacy groups cannot vet all of the voting changes that the Justice Department once reviewed, and court challenges aren’t always successful. What’s more, Alabama’s election administration is outdated and scattershot, lacking top-down oversight and uniformity across counties.
And without preclearance, it is nearly impossible to know how many relatively small changes to election systems have been made across the state that will adversely and disproportionately affect Black and Latinx voters. Congress would have to pass a new law to bring back the protection of preclearance. In fact, the U.S. House of Representatives has passed such a bill, but the U.S. Senate has yet to take up the legislation.
In the meantime, and ahead of the Nov. 3 election, Vote Your Voice grantee organizations are encountering multiple forms of voter suppression.
But like Jimmie Lee Jackson and the Selma-to-Montgomery marchers, the organizers are pushing forward.
Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice United – Grant amount: $100,000
The Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice (ACIJ) is a grassroots, statewide network that works to advance and defend the rights of immigrants. With Vote Your Voice funding, ACIJ will use phone-banking, mailers, texting, workshops, a hotline and media outreach to engage 50,000 people, predominantly low-propensity Latinx voters.
The organization will hire a staff member to focus on getting out the vote and fighting voter suppression, said Executive Director Ana Delia Espino. ACIJ also plans to hold cities accountable to commitments they made to provide voting information in Spanish. They will also help people with absentee voting.
“For us in Alabama, who have a history of voter suppression with the closure of [driver’s license offices] where people could get their IDs, there’s been no move to make absentee voting any easier,” she said.
Black Voters Matter – Grant amount: $500,000
The Black Voters Matter Capacity Building Institute builds power in predominantly Black communities. Its program, according to the group, “amplifies the work of local partners and helps to change the narrative regarding Black voters.” The organization works year-round with a footprint that touches 11 states, primarily in the Deep South.
With the Vote Your Voice grant, the group plans to conduct voter registration, education and mobilization focused on Black voters in 17 Alabama counties and dozens of counties in Georgia.
“For us, voting is not necessarily about wins and losses,” said Wanda Mosley, senior state coordinator for Georgia. “It is more so an opportunity for Black voters to have a voice and a say in who governs them and what policies are implemented.
“These policies must take into consideration the needs of Black voters, and this is why we have chosen to build power in electoral spaces.”
Faith in Action Alabama – Grant amount: $185,000
Faith in Action Alabama (FIAAL) is a multifaith, multiracial organization that plans to reach 70,000 people – focusing on formerly incarcerated citizens – through community meetings, direct voter outreach and more.
“It is important to note that the most pernicious form of voter suppression in Alabama is the state’s mass incarceration crisis and obstacles to voting faced by formerly incarcerated individuals,” said Executive Director Daniel Schwartz. “Mass incarceration is an extension of slavery and Jim Crow laws. [It’s] a tool to suppress the political power of the African American community.”
With Vote Your Voice funding, FIAAL is increasing staff capacity and will be able to connect with voters after the Nov. 3 election. “The purpose of these follow-up phone calls [is to] learn about their voting experience [and] educate them about Faith in Action Alabama’s local and state campaigns,” Schwartz said. “We believe this will help us build out the volunteer base of our campaigns.”
Overall, the grant will help FIAAL organize with 2,000 congregations across five denominations, Schwartz said.
Fortitude Foundation (Rollin to the Polls) – Grant amount: $30,000
The Rollin to the Polls (RTTP) Voting Initiative was created to provide information, resources and tools to help community members become voters. RTTP aims to reach 37,000 people – predominantly Black and low-income citizens of Montgomery, Autauga and Elmore counties – through safe voter registration and assistance events, “literature drop” canvassing, online engagement, a voting rights restoration clinic and Election Day transportation.
The voter suppression that Montgomery-based activist Kynesha Brown sees most often is based on confusion about Alabama’s absentee application and ballot. There is no option a person can select to indicate that the reason they want to vote absentee is the threat of coronavirus.
“The verbiage on the application to select for COVID is ‘I have a physical illness or infirmity which prevents my attendance at the polls.’ On the ballot, you have to select ‘I am physically incapacitated and will not be able to vote in person on Election Day.’ Some voters feel they are lying by selecting these options,” which is not the case, Brown said.
“There isn’t much we can do about the verbiage on the application or ballot,” Brown said. “However, we have push cards we distribute that explains the process.”
Greater Birmingham Ministries - Grant amount: $50,000
Greater Birmingham Ministries (GBM) is a multifaith, multiracial organization that engages in systemic change efforts to build a strong, engaged community and pursue a more just society for all people.
GBM aims to register 3,500 voters and help 250 people who have been convicted of certain felonies apply for Certificates for Eligibility to Register to Vote (CERV). “The Vote Your Voice grant is allowing us to conduct multiple strategies simultaneously, while also providing us with funds to print more than 10,000 hard copies of our voter guide,” said Executive Director Scott Douglas.
Some CERV applicants aided by GBM, however, have waited weeks for a response from the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles (ABPP), leaving their status in doubt, according to Douglas. GBM tried to diagnose the issue.
“We called [ABPP] only to discover that the mailing address on their own website was incorrect and that mail was not being forwarded to the correct address,” Douglas said. “That has since been corrected but is, in itself, a form of voter suppression.”
The Ordinary People Society – Grant amount: $120,000
The Ordinary People Society (TOPS) is a faith-based community program that works with the most disenfranchised Alabamians. TOPS aims to reach 66,500 people through voter registration, mailers and radio advertising.
“TOPS has a 19-year history of mobilizing eligible voters in Alabama and surrounding Southern states to cast their votes in municipal and general elections,” said Executive Director Rodreshia Russaw. Recently, TOPS has registered thousands of voters in and outside of prison and helped them cast their votes by absentee ballots.
Because of precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, visits to Alabama prisons and jails by grassroots groups have been extremely limited. And, Russaw said, “Many facilities have failed to provide eligible voters access to the ballots and voter information, denying them of their voting rights. This is a direct example of the type of voter suppression we are experiencing today.”
Still, Russaw is optimistic because TOPS is coaching leaders. “To sustain the movement that is built on collective power, we must have leaders who are properly trained in voter rights restoration to provide the proper information to thousands of eligible voters.”
United Women of Color – Grant amount: $20,000
United Women of Color (UWOC) is a membership organization with the goal of uniting women of all ethnicities to invest in the civic, social and financial well-being of women, girls and families. UWOC aims to engage 28,500 people through social media, voter registration and absentee ballot assistance events. The organization focuses on aiding people of color and other disenfranchised voters in Madison and Morgan counties.
In particular, it is seeing a lack of resources available for Spanish speakers, according to Executive Director Angela Curry.
“Hispanic adults who have children who were born in America are hesitant to allow their children to register to vote for fear of being ‘tracked’ by ICE through the voter registration,” Curry said.
However, Curry said she is optimistic about her organization’s ability to succeed. “We have people who are reaching out to us, unsolicited, to host events in their communities,” she said. “VYV grant funding has provided us with the financial resources to purchase marketing materials and advertising, which is helping to expand our reach. We now have the capacity to host three events simultaneously.”
Vote.org – Grant amount: $750,000
Vote.org helps voters cast ballots by addressing the barriers that make it difficult for them to participate, particularly for young voters and voters of color. With Vote Your Voice funding, Vote.org plans to target 5.8 million young voters and voters of color in Alabama and other Southern states through texting, digital outreach, print and mail communications, radio advertising, and ads on billboards and buses.
CEO Andrea Hailey said that marginalized communities, in particular, face new barriers to voting because of the pandemic.
Alabama, for example, requires voters to print, sign and mail an application to request a mail-in ballot. “Vote.org immediately recognized that low-income voters are less likely to have printer access and would be disproportionately impacted,” Hailey said.
The organization developed a way to get mail-in ballot applications printed and mailed to voters who need them and to include pre-paid return postage.
Illustration by Mary Kate McDevitt