As Senate Democrats prepare for a potentially doomed vote on critical voting rights legislation, a coalition of voting rights groups will support a “freedom ride” voter outreach tour across the US South beginning on Juneteenth.
Launching from New Orleans on 18 June, Black Voters Matter will travel from Jackson, Mississippi to Washington DC starting on 19 June and stop in Alabama, Georgia and other southern states to rally against suppressive elections laws proposed by Republican lawmakers in nearly every state, and promote voting access in communities that could be disproportionately impacted by newly restrictive voting bills.
The organisation – joined by more than 40 civil rights and labour groups – announced the campaign to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, the 1961 campaign to challenge the lack of enforcement of desegregation laws in the face of a Jim Crow-era south.
The effort also mirrors the Freedom Summer Project of 1964, when voting rights advocates mobilised to register disenfranchised people in the south to vote.
In the months that followed, civil rights activists joined the Selma To Montgomery Marches in 1965 to combat voter suppression after the police killing of Jimmie Lee Jackson, who was beaten and fatally shot by an Alabama state trooper during a peaceful march.
The events culminated in the “Bloody Sunday” march in Selma, Alabama and murder of minister James Reeb by a white mob, sparking a national outcry and mass mobilisation to strengthen federal voting rights protections against racist violence and discrimination.
But unlike the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act, two sweeping pieces of voting rights legislation now in Congress – the For the People Act and John Lewis Voting Advancement Act, a restoration of the VRA to be named after the late civil rights organiser and congressman – appear likely to fail. Both pieces of legislation face overwhelming Republican opposition in a divided Senate and powerful resistance from right-wing lobby groups against a tide of state-level bills to make it more difficult to vote.
Voting rights advocates and civil rights groups have repeatedly connected the Jim Crow-era threats to ballot access to the GOP’s latest coordinated campaigns to consolidate electoral oversight, roll back or eliminate mail-in voting and early voting options, and criminalise handing out food and water in long lines at polling locations, among other proposals.
“It’s not just about the fight that we have now,” Black Voters Matter co-founder LaTosha Brown said on Thursday. “It’s about how we are going to transform this nation for the people that built this nation.”
Beginning this year, Juneteenth – the nation’s oldest annual commemoration of the end of enslavement – will be recognised as a federal holiday, though activists and some Democratic lawmakers have stressed that the recognition must not come at the expense of other vital measures for Black Americans, like voting rights, dismantling systemic racism and justice in the face of ongoing police violence.
In a statement, Congressional Black Caucus chair Joyce Beatty said “let us not forget how much further we must go”.
“Voting rights, the racial wealth gap, justice in policing and so many more issues remain to be overcome,” she said.
Hundreds of demonstrators marched with the Poor People’s Campaign in Charleston, West Virginia on 14 June to protest Democratic Senator Joe Manchin’s opposition to the For The People Act and his dismissal of calls to retool Senate filibuster rules that Republicans have invoked to stage a blockade of Democratic agenda items.
The campaign revives the 1968 economic justice campaign from Martin Luther King Jr and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
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