Faith leaders push back against proposed ‘Souls to the Polls’ voting restrictions

Faith leaders push back against proposed ‘Souls to the Polls’ voting restrictions

Video Courtesy of The Choice

To the Rev. Fer’Rell Malone of Waycross, Georgia, the actions by his state legislators that could curtail Sunday “Souls to the Polls” activities are akin to a form of apartheid.

“They are literally evil, and they’re coming from men and women who say that they are Christians,” the Black pastor told reporters Wednesday (March 10) in a virtual news conference.

He said the lawmakers are focused on reducing effective strategies Black churches have historically employed to mobilize voters.

“They’re trying, with the voter suppression laws, to create a system of apartheid where they who have the power will retain the power,” he said.

RELATED: Biden victory in hand, Black church get-out-the-vote workers assess the future

Malone’s is one of more than 500 signatures on a Faith in Public Life petition delivered to Governor Brian Kemp that condemns proposed changes in voting policies they say will particularly harm people of color.

The Georgia House bill, which passed the Republican-majority body by a vote of 97-72 on Monday, would permit at least one Saturday for voting near the time of a future Election Day but would allow registrars to choose whether to offer voters an additional Saturday or Sunday to vote.

In recent elections in the state, Black church leaders have spearheaded “Souls to the Polls” campaigns that led worshippers directly from their pews to their polling places.

The nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice reported this month that Georgia’s Black voters accounted for 36.5% percent of Sunday voters but only 26.8% of people who voted early on other days of the week.

Former Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams said this week there are more than 250 bills related to voting restrictions being considered by state legislators across the country.

Georgia’s House and Senate proposals, which Abrams said would particularly harm people of color, relate not only to Sunday voting but also would eliminate automatic voter registration and no-excuses absentee balloting and would require a copy of a driver’s license with mailed-in ballots.

“Black people, people of color have always been the target of voter suppression because it is when we lift our voices, it is when we participate in elections, it is when we have the right to full citizenship that the trajectory of this nation changes,” Abrams, who has a United Methodist background, said Tuesday on a Facebook Live program hosted by the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s newspaper, The Christian Recorder.

In January, the Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, her state’s first Black and Jewish senators, respectively, were sworn in, giving the U.S. Senate a Democratic majority. Two months before on Election Day, a record Black voter turnout helped flip the Peach State from red to blue for the first time since 1992.

The Georgia state legislators are also proposing limitations that would criminalize volunteers — who are often connected to faith groups — if they provide food and drink to voters waiting in line outside polling places.

“The lines were so incredibly long that we had multiple reports of people fainting in lines for having to stand up for too long,” said Fair Fight Action organizing director Hillary Holley of the 2020 election, speaking during the news conference. “We saw ambulances have to get called because our elders were passing out while trying to vote.”

The Rev. Cassandra Gould, an AME minister who is the executive director of Missouri Faith Voices, said in an interview that her group has been fighting laws restricting voting, including as a co-plaintiff in a suit against the secretary of state that was dismissed on Tuesday.

Though Missouri doesn’t have early voting as Georgia does, Gould said her organization continues to oppose other kinds of voting restrictions that she says disproportionately affect African Americans. In February, the Missouri House passed a bill that requires voters to provide a photo ID or cast a provisional ballot.

“For me it’s really egregious when there are concentrated efforts to minimize democracy, to actually shrink the electorate,” said Gould, who is also the religious affairs director for the state’s NAACP chapter.

The developments in Georgia came during the anniversary week of Bloody Sunday, when church leaders and other civil rights activists were attacked by state troopers as they fought and bled for voting rights in Alabama in 1965.

Min. Shavonne Williams, an Augusta-based organizing ambassador for Faith in Public Life, recalled that historic time and said voting has long been a unified front for Black church members.

But, in addition to concerns about Black voters, the legislators’ actions have prompted questions about constitutionality and religious freedom, according to Graham Younger, Georgia director for Faith in Public Life.

Early weekend voting opportunities are vital to many residents who are unable for various reasons to vote on a weekday. Limiting which weekend day polls may be open, however, can affect worshippers of a variety of faiths and racial/ethnic groups, including Jewish congregants and members of Seventh-day Adventist churches who cannot vote on Saturdays, due to Sabbath restrictions.

“The choice that counties will now be making is between different groups’ holy days,” Younger said. “Not everyone’s holy day is Sunday.”

Conservative religious groups, including Family Research Council, support “ election integrity ” state-level provisions such as ones that require voter identification and limit no-excuses mail-in voting.

Pastor Mike McBride, a Pentecostal minister based in California who was involved in 2020 Black church voter mobilization initiatives, said organizers are pushing back against legislators seeking to reduce “Souls to the Polls” and other activities.

As they work on signing letters and raising awareness about state proposals, they also will urge passage of the For the People Act, which he hopes will “take the teeth out of a lot of these very wicked Republican schemes.”

“I believe this is tantamount to the church bombings the Ku Klux Klan did to terrorize Black people from engaging in voter registration and engagement,” said McBride, a founder of the Black Church Action Fund, in an interview. “Rather than using church bombs, they’re trying to use these kinds of state policies.”

How civil rights leader Wyatt Tee Walker revived hope after MLK’s death

How civil rights leader Wyatt Tee Walker revived hope after MLK’s death

Civil rights leader Wyatt Tee Walker addresses a crowd at St. Phillips AME Church in Atlanta.
Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images

Four years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the novelist James Baldwin would write on the pages of Esquire magazine, “Since Martin’s death, in Memphis, and that tremendous day in Atlanta, something has altered in me, something has gone away.”

Baldwin wrote about how “the act of faith” – that is, his belief that the movement would change white Americans and ultimately America – maintained him through the years of the black freedom movement, through marches and petitions and torturous setbacks.

After King’s death, Baldwin found it hard to keep that faith.

Nearly two weeks after King’s funeral, in April of 1968, King’s confidant and former strategist Wyatt Tee Walker tried to renew this faith. Drawing on a tradition of black faith, Walker encouraged a grieving community to embrace hope even in the face of despair.

As a scholar of religion and American public life, I recognize the important lessons Walker offers for current times when America is deeply divided.

Faith in action

Black public faith has a storied place in American life.

The black church has been a place of fellowship and affirmation from colonial America to modern day, empowering individuals to undertake public acts to transform politics and society.

The 19th-century National Negro Convention movement, which ran from 1831 to 1864, demonstrated this black faith in action. Its leaders advocated for the abolition of slavery and full citizenship for African Americans. One activist reflected years later that the “colored conventions” were “almost as frequent as church meetings.”

The civil rights movement carried this faith in action forward. Theologian Dwight Hopkins has written how the sermons and songs of black faith empowered and sustained African Americans, even in bleak times.

These practices on Sunday morning, he noted served to “recharge the worshipers’ energy” so they could deal with the “rigors and racism of ‘a cruel, cruel world’ from Monday though Saturday.”

Civil rights and Union leaders sing ‘We Shall Overcome’ at the conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights march on March 25, 1965 in Montgomery, Alabama.
Stephen F. Somerstein/Getty Images

It was this faith that empowered many African Americans to maintain their faith in the possibilities of democracy while facing entrenched white opposition to their civil rights. Marches, sit-ins, demonstrations and mass meetings were all public displays of black faith.

The risk of faith

In the wake of King’s assassination, the words of his last published book, “Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community,” reverberated throughout the nation.

Urban rebellions erupted in the wake of King’s death. With parts of over 100 cities smoldering or in ruins, chaos seemed a more likely future in 1968 America than community.

In a sermon called “Faith as Taking the Risk,” delivered at Princeton Theological Seminary, Walker sought to address a question posed by a young theologian James H. Cone after King’s death: “Without King, where was the hope?”

Deftly navigating the tension between hope and despair, Walker based his message on the response of the Hebrew prophet Elisha in the Book of Kings who faced crisis and despair with an invading Syrian army, widespread famine and people ready to give up.

Drawing inspiration from the faith of the community, Elisha encouraged the community to keep faith in their nation.

Horizon of hope

Elisha’s example powered Walker’s message. At Princeton, Walker encouraged the black seminarians not to countenance a nostalgia for the past. In moments of deep discouragement, Walker said, distressed people tend to retreat into a romanticized past.

“In the jargon of the street,” Walker said, “it sounds like this: ‘Child, don’t you wish it was like it was back in the good old days… .”

“And yet,” he declared, “not by any wishing or hoping or praying or anything else can we find any day when things were better. There was no such day!”

Walker proceeded to caution his audience against maintaining the status quo. Walker proclaimed, “Whatever dream of life it is we envision for our children, ourselves, our community, our church, we will never bring it to our fingertips unless it begins first with some initial risk.”

For Walker, challenging the status quo was a fundamental aspect of existence.

“The elemental character of life is one that is moving and dynamic,” he said.

Walker closed his sermon by urging the audience to embrace hope-filled struggle. But he did not deny the desperate reality.

Instead, in the face of despair, he urged the young seminarians to take a risk of faith and build a future that has not been. For Walker, that meant “doing, trying, moving toward things which have never been tried before.”

Hope in democracy

Wyatt Tee Walker in Montgomery, Alabama on April 3, 1962.
Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images

The lasting testament of black public faith is its affirmation of new possibilities during moments of deep doubt. Rather than relying on a myth of the past or upholding the status quo, Walker offered the seminarians at Princeton a new vision of a political community.

“What I’m saying to you,” Walker declared, “is that I have the ultimate faith that we are going to find a tranquility with justice in this nation, in this world. We must! And it is conceivable it could happen in our time.”

Many Americans are angry with the state of the political system. And acts of racial bigotry and religious intolerance have become far too ordinary.

In such times, Wyatt Tee Walker’s words can remind people to muster hope and keep faith with the possibilities of American democracy while continuing the struggle for a just society.

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Corey D. B. Walker, Visiting Professor, University of Richmond

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.