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Rekindling the Flame: Jackson State University students continue historic fight for the vote in Mississippi

At the edge of Jackson State University, a mere 100 yards from the closest school building, stands a sacred place in the annals of the civil rights movement in Mississippi.

It was there that Dave Dennis, co-founder of the activist umbrella group Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), in 1963 established COFO’s Mississippi headquarters.

And it was there that Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, Fannie Lou Hamer and many other courageous leaders of the movement congregated to strategize and plan how to attain civil rights for Black people. This meant registering as many Black Mississippians to vote as possible – in the face of poll taxes, literacy tests and violent intimidation by white supremacists – at a time when just 7% of eligible Black voters in the state were registered.

The headquarters at 1017 John R. Lynch St. – a street known as the cradle of civil rights activity in Mississippi – became the nerve center of the Mississippi movement.

Today, the building, with its original façade and now owned by Jackson State, is known as the COFO Civil Rights Education Center, a meeting and training space for student activists with exhibits that pay homage to the past.

It is here that a coalition of students is working to rekindle the spirit of the movement and continue the march for justice by registering, educating and mobilizing voters. To their adviser, political science professor Byron D’Andra Orey, the former Lynch Street headquarters seemed like the perfect place to resurrect student-led efforts.

“Living in a place like Mississippi, you have to become part of the solution,” said the Delta-born Orey, whose mother was a social worker in Clarksdale and father a union worker.

The student group is among those at five colleges and universities that recently received more than $80,000 in Vote Your Voice (VYV) grants under the Southern Poverty Law Center’s new College Pilot Program.

The Vote Your Voice initiative is a partnership between the SPLC and the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta to increase voter registration, participation and civic engagement among communities of color in the Deep South. The SPLC has pledged to invest $100 million in Vote Your Voice grants through 2032. This year, a total of 44 grassroots voter outreach organizations across the Deep South have received more than $4.6 million in funding as part of the 2022-23 round of VYV grants.

While the challenges are much different than they were in 1963 – when Jim Crow laws and customs enforced segregation and Klansmen murdered civil rights activists – Orey and his students know there is much work to do.

Today, Mississippi remains one of the five U.S. states with the most restrictive voting laws and ranked near the bottom for voter participation in the 2020 presidential election.

Only 28% of Jackson State’s students voted in the 2020 election, and Orey vows to reverse the poor showing.

‘Not their land’

Orey began teaching at the historically Black university in 2008, after periods at the University of Nebraska and the University of Mississippi, where he quit over the school’s refusal to remove the state flag that venerates the Confederacy. (The state finally voted to change the flag design in 2020.)

He knew he had to “move beyond the ebony tower to the urban concrete,” he said, describing his evolution from a sideline academic and racial polarization voting researcher to political advocate – and bring interested students along with him.

Orey vividly remembers as a child driving with his mother back and forth to visit his grandmother in Clarksdale, passing former plantations where Black people lived in small houses on land stretching as far as his eye could see.

“Baby, that’s not their land,” his mother would tell him when he asked why they lived that way.

The Jackson State student group is organized on the COFO coalition model and is devoted to voter registration, education, mobilization and turnout.

In 1963, COFO brought together members of some of the most defining civil rights organizations of the time: the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The coalition was instrumental in organizing the Freedom Vote campaign in 1963, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in early 1964, and the Mississippi Summer Project, known as Freedom Summer, despite brutal Ku Klux Klan retaliation across the South. In June 1964, a series of murders, bombings and church burnings culminated in the Klan kidnapping and murdering civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner in Philadelphia, Mississippi.

Today, the “COFO building” is the center of mobilization activities for a coalition of students that includes members of the Pi Sigma Alpha chapter and the Political Science Club in partnership with MS Votes and the Margaret Walker Center. Other top student organizations are represented, including the Fannie Lou Hamer Pre-Law Society, the Jackson State Chapter of the NAACP, Girl’s Coalition and the Student Government Association.

Role models of the past

Fred McBride, SPLC senior voting rights adviser, said the grants included this year in the SPLC’s Vote Your Voice College Pilot Program were specifically geared toward the 2022 elections.

The objectives of the pilot program are to increase awareness of voting rights, provide civic engagement opportunities for students and their communities and to conduct nonpartisan voter education, registration and mobilization.

“So many important issues affect students: loans, school costs, the Dobbs decision. So there is a great incentive for action,” McBride said. “If you’re talking about the youth vote, college campuses are a great resource, but they are also a great way to connect with other Vote Your Voice community partners, thereby connecting students to residents often living just blocks away from college campuses. Programs like our pilot program are instrumental in educating young voters and demonstrating the importance of this fundamental exercise.”

The Jackson State group used its $14,000 grant for student worker stipends, voter registration and education efforts by athletes at a voter registration forum, and other activities. At the panel event, one of Jackson’s city election commissioners outlined each candidate’s profile and showed sample ballots for each race. A Jackson State representative from the local NAACP and star linebacker Aubrey Miller appeared on the panel.

Such events, Orey said, combat “democratic elitism,” a political science term to characterize candidates’ disinformation strategies that “trickle down to the masses,” unaware that certain candidates are working against the interests of voters of color and poor white people. “It’s part of the ‘Southern strategy,’ where politicians bamboozle poor whites into voting against services that they need, like Medicaid,” Orey said.

On Election Day, the student group held a festive “Stroll to the Polls” event – also known as “dancing to the polls” – on the school’s Gibbs-Green Plaza outside the campus polling station. Fraternity and sorority members danced and marched to music, and food trucks lined the plaza. Athletes and others spoke about activist celebrity role models of the past, like Dick Gregory and Nina Simone. Simone’s song “Mississippi Goddam” expressed her lifetime of rage and frustration against racism and inequality and was partly inspired by the assassination of Medgar Evers in the summer of 1963.

Orey said that in cultivating the next generation of voting rights activists he is motivated by the passion and commitment of students like Jackson State junior Maisie Brown.

Brown, one of Orey’s research assistants, was named by Glamour magazine as “College Student of the Year” in October. She has appeared in Elle magazine, on CNN and in other local and national media outlets for her leadership during the Jackson water crisis.

‘Brain drain’

While Brown was still in high school, her activist impulse led her to organize a march to the Jackson capitol after George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020.

Brown told the SPLC that she considers herself “privileged” as the only child in a two-parent, civically engaged household where voting was always a priority.

“In Mississippi, young people have voter apathy because they don’t see the effects of voting because in Mississippi, we are stuck in the status quo,” said Brown, who also tracks state legislation as an advocacy coordinator for the Jackson ACLU.

“How can we make change if we aren’t voting? We need to show what we won’t accept. When we have registration, people are more than willing to register. That’s the easy part. It’s getting people to actually vote [that’s the hard part].”

Brown cited school loans and the state’s abortion prohibition as the two issues young people like her care most about.

“Mississippi already struggles with a brain drain,” she said. “With a complete lack of access to abortion in the state, progressive young people have more reason to leave.”

For those who stay, Brown said that her participation in Orey’s Jackson State coalition “has strengthened my resolve. It’s reignited my interest in focusing on young people. In the past, I focused on registration. Now I want to focus more on education and mobilization and learn what’s going on in the state Legislature so I can educate people on the local, more impactful issues before they vote.”

Here is a look at other Vote Your Voice College Pilot Program grant recipients and how they are using the funding:

Alabama A&M University Civic Engagement Team – Grant amount: $22,000

On Nov. 8, Alabama voters passed a ballot measure to remove racist language from the state constitution, which enshrined white supremacy when it was written in 1901. The language permits school segregation by race, poll taxes, a voting literacy test and “involuntary servitude,” which forced Black incarcerated men to hard labor. Despite Supreme Court decisions such as Brown v. Board of Education, which outlawed school segregation in 1954, Alabama left the language intact during the 978 times the constitution was revised.

The win was big for professor and student adviser Monica Clarke, along with the students, faculty and volunteers she supervises as chair of AAMU’s Civic Engagement Team. The team used its grant to train, equip and pay students, who registered over 500 fellow students and AAMU staff in orientation classrooms, at football games and in residence halls.

“Our main goal is to register students to vote, but we have to educate them,” said Clarke. “A lot of our students don’t understand the need to vote or never voted before because they come from a family that didn’t vote. We have to show them that everything we do is connected to the vote. That the air we breathe, the food we eat, the clothes we buy, every decision we make in our lives can be traced to the vote.”

Emory University Mu Alpha Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. – Grant amount: $10,450

Emory’s Mu Alpha Chapter brothers educate, register and conduct get-out-the-vote activities among students, faculty and administrators under the rallying motto “A Voteless People Is a Hopeless People.” That motto is also the name of a national program established in 1937 by Mu Alpha’s national organization, the first intercollegiate Black fraternity, founded in 1906 at Cornell University.

For Malcolm Phillips, Emory’s Mu Alpha Chapter president, the motto is as relevant today as it was then, when white Southerners disenfranchised – and disempowered – the Black community through poll taxes, lack of voter education and threats of violence. A September on-campus voter drive with partner Emory Votes Initiative yielded more than 50 new registrants, Phillips gleefully reported – “in just two hours!”

After registration ended Oct. 11, Mu Alpha continued to use its grant to hold table events to check registration status and provide nonpartisan voting information: anything from absentee ballots to the campus polling location. It held a candidates’ forum and used social media to extend its campaign to the greater Atlanta metro area.

Mu Alpha will hold another event forum in February – this time for newly elected officials.

“We’re going to target officials who ran on noble platforms to hold them accountable to do what they said they would do,” Phillips said.

Southern University-Baton Rouge Alpha Phi Alpha – Beta Sigma and Beta Iota Lambda Chapters in partnership with the Southern University Chapter of the NAACP – Grant amount: $25,000

At Southern University-Baton Rouge (SU), getting out the vote is a “family affair.” Members of Alpha Phi Alpha; its undergraduate chapter, Beta Sigma; its graduate (alumni) chapter, Beta Iota Lambda; and its student chapter of the NAACP collaborate to get out the vote. Notably, W.E.B. Du Bois, the NAACP co-founder, was an Alpha Phi Alpha member.

Before the November midterms, chapters and the NAACP held numerous, grant-supported voter registration and education events. These included a “Chat and Chew” nonpartisan, 12-candidate forum; a “Prowl to the Polls” effort (Southern’s mascot is a Jaguar) that provided transportation on the first day of early voting; and “Let’s Taco Bout Voting” on Nov. 1 – the last day of early voting. They set up phone banks, voting information and registration tables at “Pretty Wednesdays,” a regular weekly “Dress for Success” event for fraternities and sororities. Through its Beta Sigma and NAACP student chapters, they modeled their “students for change” voter outreach on the NAACP’s “agents of change” principle. On Election Day, in true Louisiana tradition, students met at the student union and held a “second line” parade to the nearest polling station.

“[O]ur vote really is our future,” said Derrick Warren, Southern University Associate Dean – College of Business and adviser to Alpha’s Beta Sigma Chapter. It truly captures the spirit of Alpha Phi Alpha’s “A Voteless People Is a Hopeless People” campaign.

“Not voting is a vote, whether people realize it or not. … That’s why it’s so important that we make as many people aware as we can.”

Louisiana State University – Grant amount: $13,000

The Clarence L. Barney Jr. African American Cultural Center (AACC) at Louisiana State University plans to partner with various student groups on campus to register and mobilize students to participate in Louisiana’s upcoming 2023 elections. Partnering student groups include LSU NAACP, LSU Black Student Union, Geaux Vote, AACC Ambassadors and other diverse student organizations.

Picture at top: Jackson State University students participate in a Stroll to the Polls event on Election Day. A coalition of Jackson State University student organizations has received a Vote Your Voice grant under the SPLC’s new College Pilot Program. The Vote Your Voice initiative is a partnership between the SPLC and the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta to increase voter registration, participation and civic engagement among communities of color in the Deep South. (Credit: William Kelly)