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The ride for voting rights: Inside the journey to build Black voting power

JACKSON, Miss. — The morning sky is a shade of gray when the supporters of the Black Voters Matter organization climb aboard a long, sleek coach they’ve nicknamed “The Blackest Bus in America.”

Cruising down Woodrow Wilson Highway, the GPS system is pointed 10 miles away toward Tougaloo College. Yet, in myriad ways, the true destination is freedom.

Black Voters Matter has embarked on what the national advocacy and policy group has christened a Freedom Ride for Voting Rights. Paying homage to the legendary Freedom Rides of the civil rights movement and their 60th anniversary, this 21st Century iteration is an education and outreach campaign. Its goals, BVM co-founders LaTosha Brown and Cliff Albright note, are threefold: to amplify the need for federal voting rights legislation, build Black voting power, and advocate for Washington, D.C., statehood.

The tour comes in the post-Trump era, with at least 47 states having introduced mostly Republican-sponsored bills that critics charge are intended to restrict or limit voting access in ways that would have an outsize impact on Black voters. Already in states such as Georgia, controversial measures have become law.

“State legislatures across the country are actively working to undermine our rights and strip us of our most basic freedoms,” said Brown, a Selma, Alabama, native who joined forces in 2016 with Albright, a native of the Bronx borough of New York City.

People gather during the launch of the “Freedom Ride for Voting Rights” in Jackson, Miss., on June 19, 2021. Eric J. shelton / Reuters

“Every bill to suppress votes, criminalize protests and weaken Black power is a reminder of the enduring history of slavery in this country,” she added.

Fittingly, the journey began on Juneteenth, the new federal holiday marking the bitter end of slavery in America. Along the way, the bus has made stops throughout the South, from the Gulf states through to Georgia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. The final stop will be the nation’s capital, to rally for statehood in Washington, D.C., on June 26.

“We who believe in freedom shall not rest.”

This new generation of Freedom Riders and their allies pulled onto the tree-lined campus of Tougaloo College. Founded in 1869, the historically Black college became one of the epicenters of the civil rights movement. That era’s leaders, decades later, seemed to keep a presence on campus. 

NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers who was assassinated in 1963 often walked these grounds. Civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Fannie Lou Hamer, Stokely Carmichael and Julian Bond had been known to find refuge on campus or speak at the historic Woodworth Chapel of “Mother Tougaloo.” 

Last week, riders disembarking the bus were greeted by a crowd including some snapping selfies in front of the eye-catching “Blackest Bus in America.”

The 45-foot coach is adorned with Afrocentric liberation hues of black, red and green. Phrases such as “The Fight Continues” and the words “Love” and “Power” are emblazoned on both sides.

The bus pulls up to Tougaloo College during the launch of the “Freedom Ride” in Jackson, Miss., on June 19, 2021.Eric J. Shelton / Reuters

Prominently featured on the bus exterior are black and white mug shots of the original Freedom Riders, a multiracial cohort of young men and women, including future Georgia Congressman John Lewis. The 1961 Freedom Rides, organized by James Farmer and the Congress of Racial Equality, tested segregation laws at whites-only transportation terminals in the South. Riders were viciously beaten, and a Greyhound bus was bombed in Alabama. Hundreds of Freedom Riders were arrested and jailed under horrific conditions. 

The BVM team wants the country to remember their sacrifices, and that of countless others who bled and died for the right to vote. Yet, they approach this serious work with joy. As the rally got underway, they formed a “Soul Train-meets-conga line” and danced into the venue singing the James Brown classic, “Say it Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud!”  

Inside the Owens Health and Wellness Center on campus, the syncopated rhythms of African drums filled the air. In the bleachers sat people of all ages, many of them under 40. Tables were set up with pamphlets, voter registration forms and swag, such as T-shirts and buttons.

One by one, speakers delivered impassioned speeches about voting rights. Pastor Wendell Paris Sr., a civil rights movement veteran, led a prayer, citing scripture from the Book of Isaiah that speaks of seeking justice, and correcting oppression. 

“Pardon the sins of this nation,” he said. “Put its pronouncements in line with its practices.”

He wants to see “a multiplural democracy … that we live together as one.” Yet “you don’t get free by being mild mannered,” Paris added. “We demand to be full citizens.”

“Tell it!” shouted Kathy Sykes, a longtime community advocate and former Mississippi state representative, who was seated in the audience. “Amen!” 

Barbara Arnwine, a lawyer, updated the crowd on voting rights legislation before Congress. 

The For the People Act, she explained, would expand early voting and make voter registration easier. While the bill passed the House, a vote to debate it was blocked in the Senate this week, through a Republican-led filibuster. Then there’s the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. It would re-establish federal oversight to guard against racial discrimination in voting, struck down by the Supreme Court in the Shelby County v. Holder decision in 2013. The 117th Congress must also weigh whether Washington, D.C., finally achieves statehood, Arnwine said.

“Yesterday, I visited the home of Medgar Evers, and I spoke to his spirit,” said Arnwine, who founded and leads the Transformative Justice Coalition. “I told him, ‘Don’t you worry. We’ve got this!’ And we know what we must do in this era: fight for justice.” 

Brown, an accomplished singer, opened with the civil rights-era anthem, “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.”

“Know the first thing we did right/Was the day we started to fight/Keep your eye on the prize hold on, hold on.”

She next asked the audience “to get centered” and close their eyes for a rhetorical question: “What would America look like without racism?”

“You’ve got to dream big,” she continued, sharing her vision of an equitable nation in which everyone was treated with “love, dignity and respect.” But until that happens, she said, “We who believe in freedom shall not rest.”

Black Voters Matter co-founders Cliff Albright and LaTosha Brown speak to a crowd at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on June 21, 2021.Dustin Chambers / Reuters

Albright, sporting a BVM baseball cap, poured libations to the ancestors. He encouraged everyone to call out the names of their forebears and Black heroes and heroines. 

“Nat Turner! Sojourner Truth! Harriet Tubman!” he said. The call and response yielded cries of “ashe” (pronounced ah-SHAY), a Yoruba word of affirmation. Albright then challenged attendees, especially youth, to pick up the baton of activism from previous generations. “Will you answer the call? What will your role be?”

“If we all answer the call, there ain’t nothing they can do to stop us.”

“Voting is the most important right we have.”

Just as legacy civil rights groups including the NAACP, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference helped change the course of history, BVM’s leaders said they’re dedicated to leaving an indelible mark on society. 

“We do work 365 days a year,” Brown said. “We’re not one of those organizations that is episodic. You’re not just going to see us around election season. Our goal is to build and expand the ecosystem. We want to continue to build community.”

Their mission manifests in each rally, church and community stop on the route where BVM and its partner organizations were greeted by local activists, officials and residents. 

Dancers perform during a stop at the Ebenezer Baptist Church. Dustin Chambers / Reuters

In Birmingham, Alabama, the Freedom Riders stopped near the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, an interpretive museum and research center that depicts the movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Paces away is the historic 16th Street Baptist Church, where King and Fred Shuttlesworth frequently preached, prayed and strategized during the movement. In 1963, an explosion at that church, orchestrated by the Ku Klux Klan, killed four young Black girls — Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Denise McNair — and injured dozens of congregants.

Across the street is Kelly Ingram Park, where demonstrations were staged in the 1960s. Today, there are statues of King, the courageous children who braved arrests, vicious dogs and firehoses, and other foot soldiers of the movement.  

Despite steady rain, people stood under tents and umbrellas to hear poetry, live music and messages about the necessity of voting.

“We don’t have the luxury,” of apathy or silence, Randall Woodfin, Birmingham’s 40-year-old Black mayor, told the crowd. The event wrapped on a lighter note: an impromptu “cupid shuffle.” 

The next day, BVM visited two churches in Tennessee. Upon arrival at the First Baptist Church, Capitol Hill, along Nashville’s Rosa Parks Boulevard, it was a steamy 93 degrees. There were grills set up and food trucks. People fanned themselves and gulped cold drinks.

Still, onlookers braved the heat to hear from BVM and local activists such as Novella Paige. “I was part of the sit-ins to integrate Woolworth’s,” the octogenarian explained. “Voting is the most important right we have.”

Brown and Albright say that is the mindset that drives them. Their grassroots work to increase voter registration and turnout, advocate for policies to expand voting rights and access, and help develop infrastructure where little or none exists for Black voters have proven critical to the nation’s electoral process.

Albright had harsh words for Senate Republicans who blocked debate of the For The People Act this week. “Despite all their rhetoric about protecting our democracy, Republicans have used this vote to block a simple debate on this legislation, which has the support of nearly 70 percent of Americans. … under the guise of bipartisanship, this vote proves that, no matter what the issue, Republicans will continue to stand against the will of American voters,” he said.

“Their actions prove that they’re hellbent on dismantling our democracy. Our representatives have an obligation to — at the very least — explore what voters say that they want, because their job is to represent the American people. Our freedom is not negotiable and we will not compromise on voting rights.” 

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