During the civil rights movement’s struggle against discrimination and voter repression in Jim Crow America, the Black Church was a source of refuge and determination. Today, a new wave of voter suppression laws target black voters, and new generations of black clerics are bringing their moral authority to a campaign to defend the black vote.
We need these prophetic voices. The new Jim Crow doesn’t look exactly like the old Jim Crow, but it is based on the same assault on the dignity, humanity, and civil rights of black Americans. We need the truth-tellers of our communities to speak out. Because the new Jim Crow is based on lies.
The big lie former President Donald Trump and his supporters have told is that he won the 2020 election but his victory was stolen by corrupt election officials and blacks and browns casting fraudulent votes.
The existence of widespread electoral fraud is itself a lie. It has been exposed over and over again. But Republicans in dozens of states are using this lie to justify new restrictive electoral rules. They claim to protect “electoral integrity,” but they are really trying to make it difficult for some blacks and browns to cast a vote and count.
Right-wing lawmakers are free to impose discriminatory electoral rules through yet another lie – that of John Roberts, the Chief Justice of the United States. He justified the 2013 decision of a conservative majority in the court to abolish a key enforcement mechanism of the Voting Rights Act by saying that racial discrimination in voting was a thing of the past.
States from all over the old confederation have proven otherwise by introducing new restrictions on registration and voting. Some went into effect just hours after the Supreme Court gave them the go-ahead.
That was bad enough. But the right-wing voter suppression machinery has really been in full swing after the 2020 elections. Republican lawmakers saw that the black turnout helped President Joe Biden win key battlefield states. And they vowed not to let that happen again.
The Republican legislature’s strategy of staying in power is not to reach out to black voters, but to expel them. But we are not excluded. We will urge Congress to pass the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, two pieces of legislation needed to repeal the new Jim Crow laws and prevent future voting restrictions.
The late John Lewis MP in his parting message last year told us that if we fail to exercise our right to vote, it can be taken from us. This year we see new efforts to take our votes because we voted.
We cannot allow politicians to turn around. At People For the American Way, we are investing more resources in our Defend the Black Vote project. We are sounding the alarm about incapacitation. And we’re building our capacity to reach, educate, and mobilize even more black voters than we did in 2020 through digital media, paid advertising, and an ambitious peer-to-peer SMS program.
And we will continue to be inspired by the vision and leadership of black ministers like Rev. Timothy McDonald, who founded the African American Ministers Leadership Council and Souls to the Polls movement more than 20 years ago. When the Georgia Republicans tried to close Souls to the polls by banning early voting on Sundays, the Rev. McDonald named them a “Klan in Three-Piece Suits.”
Rev. McDonald’s sincere clarification of the truth shamed Georgia Republicans for abandoning this part of their electoral suppression scheme. But the rest became law – including the notorious prohibition of groups on watering people who had to wait in long voting lines. Suffrage activists have gone to court to challenge Georgia law and related laws. The organizers will do everything possible to help black voters overcome any new obstacles that have been placed between them and the ballot box.
And the Black Church will once again give voice to the aspirations of our people, drawing on a long tradition of prophetic witness against injustice combined with strategic organization for freedom and equality.
“We endured slavery, Jim Crow and lynching by being creative and strategic,” Rev. McDonald told CNN. âWe’re going to use their own tools and throw them back to them. We have to beat them in their own game. “
Ben Jealous is President of the People For the American Way and People For the American Way Foundation. Jealous has decades of experience as a leader, coalition builder, social justice campaigner, and seasoned nonprofit manager. In 2008 he was elected the youngest President and CEO of the NAACP. He is a graduate of Columbia University and Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and has taught at Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania.