The 2008 election was a hopeful one for African Americans in our democracy — not because of who was elected, but because of who turned out to vote. We voted at a nearly identical rate to our white neighbors for the first time in U.S. history. In fact, African-American women had the highest turnout rate of any group of any race.
More than 40 years after the end of the Jim Crow era (albeit amid the resurrection of what many are calling the “New Jim Crow”), we closed that persisting gap of participation. In greater numbers than ever before, we stood up and we spoke with our vote.
But since 2008, our right to vote — which is essentially a form of free speech — has been under an unprecedented attack. Shortly after the election, over half of Republican voters said that they believed the presidential election had been stolen for Barack Obama by ACORN, a now-defunct organization that worked to register new voters, including many African Americans.
In response to this false myth promoted by right-wing media and politicians, state legislatures across the country have been trying to make it harder to register to vote. The most common form this takes is voter ID laws, which, under the guise of preventing the over-hyped problem of “voter fraud,” in fact keep millions of voters from the polls. These laws, which are on the books or being considered in 41 states, target voters who don’t have certain types of government identification. They are overwhelmingly young, elderly, and persons of color.
What’s even more discouraging than the faulty basis of these restrictive laws is where they come from. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a group funded by large corporations that writes legislation for state legislators, is pushing these voter ID laws to states around the country. Why do big business interests care about restricting voting rights? Because voting is the only way those of us without millions of dollars to spend on elections can make our voices heard.
The real goals of these laws were thrown into sharp light in Tennessee this year, when we learned about Dorothy Cooper, a 96-year-old black woman who was denied a voter ID because she couldn’t produce a copy of her marriage license. Mrs. Cooper had voted nearly every year since she was of voting age, and had never before run into a problem registering — even in the Jim Crow South. Mrs. Cooper wasn’t trying to commit fraud. She was trying to exercise her right and her duty as a citizen. Yet she was treated like a criminal.
While we can and should fight the enactment of these laws, we can’t stop there. Today, the most important thing you can do to make sure your voice is heard in the democratic process is to know your rights, inform others of their rights, be prepared to vote, and vote in every election, and vote. This is especially true for African Americans, who are disproportionately being targeted and impacted by these new laws.
The Black Church has a longstanding history of championing political, educational, and economic rights, not only for African Americans but for all citizens. And in this modern era, we must continue the fight.
The right to vote, especially for African Americans, is under attack. Churches and other places of worship, laity, pastors, laity, and ministry leaders, who were essential to securing that right, will be essential to preserving it.