Tuesday, October 9, 2018

'They served their time. Their voices could make a huge difference.'

  Lorena Barnum Sabbs was just 11 years old when she was arrested.

  She was trying to integrate the local movie theater in Americus, Georgia. But when the group of 30 girls refused to leave the balcony, police arrested them and drove them almost an hour away to the Leesburg Stockade. They slept on the cells’ cement floors. They were threatened. A snake was thrown into their cells. Some were held as long as 45 days.

  Their parents didn’t know where they were until a local dogcatcher spread the word. No one could get them out until the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee sent a photographer. Sabbs told the story of her 1963 arrest to Susan Chira, who interviewed more than 50 black women during a voter mobilization bus tour across Georgia, Florida, and Mississippi last week.

  As Chira writes:

    In Columbus, Ga., women sit in the fellowship hall of the Emmanuel Christian Community Church, clipboards at the ready to register voters. In Panama City, Fla., sorority sisters park themselves at a street corner across from an imperiled elementary school, holding signs reminding people to vote. And in Greenville, Miss., the mayor of a nearby town founded by sharecroppers says she will not give up on coaxing young people to the polls, even as they complain their votes don’t matter.

  It can be easy sometimes in the Deep South to think that your vote doesn’t matter.

  Millions of Southern voters are shut out of the democratic process by voter roll purges, shortened voting hours, picture ID requirements, shuttered polling places, and laws that disenfranchise people with felony convictions.

  In fact, felony convictions alone currently preclude 6 million Americans from voting, one in 13 of them black. That’s why college students Kayla and Kiana Blaine are working in Florida to make sure that Amendment 4 — which would restore voting rights to most formerly incarcerated people — is passed.

  “They’ve served their time,” Kiana said. “Their voices could make a huge difference.”

  The Southern Poverty Law Center is working to pass Amendment 4, too. Florida is one of just four states that permanently ban people convicted of felonies from voting. This constitutional amendment would restore the voting rights of 1.4 million Floridians who’ve been convicted of a felony — and that’s not the only place we’re working to restore voting rights.

  In Louisiana, the SPLC filed an amicus brief in a lawsuit with the NAACP and the Sentencing Project challenging the state’s felony disenfranchisement policy, which is rooted in racial discrimination.

  In Alabama, lawmakers recently made thousands of formerly incarcerated Alabamians eligible to vote — but didn’t tell them. The SPLC is working to make sure that these voters get word of their eligibility and get registered before the election that will take place next month.

  And in Mississippi, the SPLC has filed a lawsuit to overturn the state’s discriminatory lifetime voting ban. One in six black Mississippians can’t cast a ballot thanks to a state constitution written specifically to prevent freed slaves and their descendants from gaining political influence. But as Chira writes for The New York Times,

    The very issue that has alienated many young black people — a belief that the criminal justice system is stacked against black men — can also be used to persuade them to vote, said DeJuana Thompson, a veteran of the Alabama Senate effort who founded the advocacy group Woke Vote to reach black millennials. She said she tells them, “You can do something to change what is happening to you and your friends. Part of that is voting, part of that is protest.”

  The SPLC will continue to do both — and work to make sure others can, too.

  This article was published by the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama-based civil rights organization.

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