The fight to vote: Black activists work to upend a history of voter suppression

"We have the generation that’s willing to say, ‘I’m prepared to fight.'"

June 19, 2020, 8:10 PM

For voting rights activist Latosha Brown, voting in Georgia’s primary election last week laid bare the challenges African Americans face when trying to vote.

Brown said she waited three hours to vote at her polling station in south Atlanta. The scene there, she said, was far different from that at a primarily white polling site on the northern side of the city where she went afterward to meet another voter. There were no chairs set up by people waiting in line, no water being handed out and no tents available to provide shade. There also weren’t any lines.

“I go to this polling site, it is just seamless,” Brown, co-founder of the nonprofit Black Voters Matter, told ABC News. “I remember sitting in my car, like, I don’t understand what’s so different. … We had to bring stadium chairs and we had to actually prepare in some way. But then in this white district, it just seems like a seamless process, as it should be for all of us.”

PHOTO: Latosha Brown, co-founder of the non-profit Black Voters Matter, saw the disparities in access to voting stations between predominantly black and white communities during the June 10 Georgia primaries.
Latosha Brown, co-founder of the non-profit Black Voters Matter, saw the disparities in access to voting stations between predominantly black and white communities during the June 10 Georgia primaries.
ABC News

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the 15th Amendment, making it illegal to deny someone the right to vote based on their race. Last week, however, polling sites in predominantly black and brown neighborhoods saw a disproportionate amount of chaos, including faulty voting equipment, long lines and overwhelmed poll workers.

As part of the ABC News special “Juneteenth,” ABC News spoke to activists about the long history of voter suppression among blacks in the United States as well as what they’re doing to fight for voter equality come the November presidential election.

Yohuru Williams, an activist and professor of history at the University of St. Thomas, said that with the passing of the 15th Amendment, black people believed it would be their opportunity to full citizenship and equality. However, he said that over time, lawmakers began implementing tactics to deny blacks access to the ballot box, among other rights. These included Jim Crow laws.

PHOTO: Yohuru Williams, a professor of history at St. Thomas University, said that "efforts to prevent African Americans from voting were ultimately very successful in the South."
Yohuru Williams, a professor of history at St. Thomas University, said that "efforts to prevent African Americans from voting were ultimately very successful in the South."
ABC News

“We’ll have the poll tax, which required African Americans to pay a fee in order to exercise their right to register to vote. There will be literacy tests, which required African Americans to pass a test in order to vote,” Williams said. “There was always the threat of violence and intimidation at the polls, which was another tool that segregationists used… These efforts to prevent African Americans from voting were ultimately very successful in the South.”

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s brought about monumental change for African Americans, culminating with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which provided nationwide protections for voting.

Andrew Young, a civil rights leader who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and later became ambassador to the United Nations, marched in the protests between Selma, Alabama, and the state capital of Montgomery. The first attempt at the peaceful protest on March 7, 1965, turned violent when state troopers and local police beat the protesters with weapons and tear gas -- a day that came to be known as “Bloody Sunday.”

PHOTO: Andrew Young, civil rights leader and former ambassador to the United Nations, spoke about the sacrifices black people made during the Civil Rights Movement to get the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed.
Andrew Young, civil rights leader and former ambassador to the United Nations, spoke about the sacrifices black people made during the Civil Rights Movement to get the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed.
ABC News

“We were willing to die because we knew this country needed the Voting Rights Act to empower each and every citizen to express the will of the people,” Young said.

Since the passing of the Voting Rights Act, black Americans' ability to vote, particularly in the South, has come under attack again.

“These have taken many forms in recent years, including voter suppression laws, felony disenfranchisement and also the purging of voter rolls,” Williams said. “Many would argue today that it is still precarious for African Americans to be able to exercise the right to vote … because of some of the irregularities and political chicanery that still goes on at the polls.”

Brown agrees that black voters’ civil rights are constantly under attack, but she believes in perseverance.

“I am sitting here as a hope and the dream of a slave... My family was treated and sold like cattle,” Brown said. "Yet, here I stand, and that's because there were people who had a belief and they had a vision. The work that we do, we do this work because we believe that we are standing on the side of right. And I do believe that, ultimately, when people people recognize their own power, then that's when things change."

PHOTO: People wait in line to vote in Georgias Primary Election, June 9, 2020 in Atlanta.
People wait in line to vote in Georgia's Primary Election, June 9, 2020 in Atlanta.
Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images, FILE

A variety of issues have led to a tipping point in the United States over the last few weeks. The recent deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks -- as well as so many others over the years -- have led to a persistent protest movement across the country that has marched every day for weeks.

Amid their calls for police reform and an end to police brutality, others within the protest movement are working to get out the vote, which they believe is the best way to create meaningful, lasting change.

PHOTO: People wait in line to cast votes in Georgia's Primary Election on June 9, 2020 in Atlanta.
People wait in line to cast votes in Georgia's Primary Election on June 9, 2020 in Atlanta.
Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images, FILE

Draymond Green, power forward for the Golden State Warriors of the NBA, recently partnered with Lebron James and other athletes and entertainers to form the organization More Than A Vote, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting voter suppression and educating black youth about the voting process to increase turnout.

“We’re not taught a lot of the necessary things that we need to know [in school]: voting, taxes, all these different things. So, from a standpoint of voting, I just didn’t think it mattered,” Green said, adding that despite winning the popular vote in 2016, Hillary Clinton still lost in the electoral college. “Al Gore won the popular vote and lost [in 2000]. So I think we’ve seen that now several times, and so I immediately said, ‘My vote don’t matter.’ It does.”

Back in Atlanta, Lloyd Pierce, head coach of the NBA’s Hawks, is trying to make sure the issues Georgia saw last week won’t happen again in November.

“Polls are open, machines are broke. Not enough volunteers and not enough technicians to come out when the machines break, and so, the lines get longer and people get impatient,” he said. “People have to work. I have to go back to work. You know, we’ve had to extend hours pretty much in every county to allow voters to get through. But how many walked away after seeing issue after issue that we can’t count?”

On Monday, he spoke about voter suppression during a rally over the shooting of Rayshard Brooks a few days earlier in the parking lot of an Atlanta Wendy’s after an employee called 911 to report Brooks asleep at the wheel in the drive-thru lane and unable to be awakened.

PHOTO: Lloyd Pierce, head coach of the NBA's Atlanta Hawks, is advocating for the arena in which his team plays to turn into a polling station for the November elections.
Lloyd Pierce, head coach of the NBA's Atlanta Hawks, is advocating for the arena in which his team plays to turn into a polling station for the November elections.
ABC News

Pierce says there’s too many problems with the current voting system that affect black Americans. Now, he’s advocating to turn the State Farm Arena, where the Hawks play, into a polling station.

“I think we need to increase polling places and we need to increase the capacity of the polling places,” he said, suggesting that every NBA team could open up their arenas for voting.

However, Pierce said that getting black people to the polls will be another challenge, and that it’ll involve educating people on why voting matters.

“It’s hard to know why if you don’t have the context as to why [voting is] so important,” Pierce said. “It’s exercise your right, and I think when you say that … who cares? For some people, it doesn’t matter who you vote for. Some people really, truly believe that. … But exercise your right because people fought for you to have that right.”

During a protest Wednesday in Clayton County, about 15 miles south of Atlanta, Mary Pat Hector, youth director for the National Action Network, implored her fellow demonstrators to vote. At the rally, workers from the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda, for which Hector is youth coordinator, were helping people register to vote.

PHOTO: A protester is seen here during a rally in Clayton County, Georgia, on June 17.
A protester is seen here during a rally in Clayton County, Georgia, on June 17.
ABC News

“I feel like young people have a right to be angry. I feel like young people don’t want to show up because they’ve shown up so many times and nothing has happened.” she told ABC News. “There’s been no change. … I think it’s important for us to show them that if you’re tired of the system the way it is, it’s important for us to go into that system and change it.”

PHOTO: Mary Pat Hector, youth director of the National Action Network, called on people to vote during a protest in Clayton County, Georgia, on June 17.
Mary Pat Hector, youth director of the National Action Network, called on people to vote during a protest in Clayton County, Georgia, on June 17.
ABC News

Hector said she wants these protests to be “more than a moment, but a movement.” She said that while voting is important for influencing policy, going out into the streets to protest is also important for “demanding elected officials do their jobs.”

“Coretta Scott King once said that struggle is a never ending process. Freedom is never really won,” Hector said. “You win it and earn it in every generation, and I believe that it’s always gonna be a constant fight and it’s gonna be a constant struggle.”

“But I believe that we have the generation that’s willing to say, ‘I’m prepared to fight,’” she added. “And they’ve been showing that to us the past few months. And I’m proud to be standing alongside them. And I can’t wait to stand alongside them come Election Day in November.”

ABC News' Joseph Rhee, Ashley Bridges and Ashley Schwartz-Lavares contributed to this report.

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