Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, Fellow Black Women Leaders and Allies Arrested in Latest Voting Rights Protests
WASHINGTON, DC – JULY 29: Voting rights activists, led by Co-chair of National African American Clergy Network Barbara William Skinner (2nd L), U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) (3rd L), President and CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation Melanie Campbell (4th L), Cora Masters Barry (5th L), wife of the late D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, and President and Chair of the Board of National Council of Negro Women Johnnetta Cole (R), participate in a protest on Capitol Hill July 29, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Fierce pushback continues against hundreds of state voting rights measures that some critics have dubbed `Jim Crow 2.0.’ Black women, men and multiracial allies are leading the charge nationwide.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), Dr. Johnnetta Cole, president of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), and civil rights attorney Faya Rose Touré were among seven people arrested during a peaceful protest last week (June 29 ) on Capitol Hill.

“Voting rights…is not just to go and vote but to empower and to make that birthright given to you by the 15th Amendment,” said Jackson Lee in a passionate speech. “Why do we forget the Constitution? The fundamental right that president Biden talked about is embedded in the Constitution. The 13th Amendment said no more slaves in America. Tragically, the journey has not ended, to end that stigma. The 14th Amendment said that due process is owed you. And that you had freedom…So the 15th Amendment says the right of citizens to vote shall not be abridged.”

Following a rally earlier that day in the shadow of the Supreme Court, the group marched to the Senate Hart office building, chanting and singing freedom songs. Capitol police warned the two dozen or so protestors gathered outside that they were unlawfully assembled and arrests could result. The group, mostly Black women, stood firm.

As officers placed zip ties on the wrists of Rep. Lee and others before loading them into a police wagon, emotions ran high. Some in the crowd began to cry, others yelled at law enforcement to treat the women respectfully. There were cheers and applause for those who put their bodies on the line, following a long tradition of nonviolent action and civil disobedience to fight injustice.

The event was organized by NCNW, the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation (NCBCP), and the League of Women Voters. About 30 multi-generational,  multi-racial and bipartisan community and national leaders, activists, and advocates spoke out.

They plan to peacefully agitate until the Senate passes the `For the People Act’ and also reforms the filibuster. Three weeks ago, a similar Capitol Hill action led to the arrest of nine people. Rep. Joyce Beatty, Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), Melanie Campbell, President/CEO of NCBCP, and Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner of the National African American Clergy Network were among those detained.

The women say swift passage of federal voting rights legislation is imperative. Since the November 2020 elections, mostly Republican legislators in 49 states have proposed nearly 400 measures. More than a dozen have already become law in states such as Georgia. “We’re fighting for the same things we marched for decades ago,” said Cora Masters Barry, a longtime activist and former wife of the late Washington D.C. mayor Marion Barry. “It’s brought me and many people back into the streets to protest.”

Some in the GOP have characterized the slew of bills as voting integrity measures. But many voting rights advocates believe the bills target Black voters, and will also threaten ballot access for seniors, rural voters, and people with disabilities. Measures range from efforts to cut early voting and voter ID laws, to language about who can pass out water to voters waiting in line.

Voting rights issues drove other recent activity in the nation’s capital. Several Texas lawmakers testified last Thursday before the House Subcommitee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. About 60 Texas state lawmakers, all Democrats, left the state in July to stop sweeping legislation they contend will disenfranchise voters.

Meanwhile, last Wednesday, Rev. Al Sharpton, Martin Luther King III, and his wife Arndrea Waters King, hosted a press conference with the Texas legislators at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial on the National Mall. The civil rights activists came to Washington to personally urge members of Congress to pass federal voting rights legislation.

“We must resist the voter suppression that Texas, Georgia, Florida and other states are demonstrating to restrict our access at the polls,” said Sharpton, founder/president of the National Action Network.

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NAN is joining forces with the Drum Major Institute, March On, Future Coalition and SEIU for a “March On for Voting Rights,” slated for August 28, 2021. That day marks the 58th anniversary of the historic March On Washington.  

In a statement provided to ESSENCE, the eldest son of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King termed this period in America’s history “very difficult.” “Something is wrong within our nation at this moment, but it is not something we cannot fix,” said King, chairman of the Drum Major Institute. “My dad and mom understood that it took only a few good women and men to bring about change and justice. They and many others gave their lives so that we would not have to be here today talking about expanding voting rights.”

Besides the press conference, the group sat down with members of Congress. Meetings were held with Rep. Beatty, Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC) and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) of the CBC. They also engaged with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV), and Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC).

Senate Democrats have been working on a revised voting rights proposal. SiX Action, an organization that promotes progressive policy and strategy goals by state legislators, recently held a call with media and lawmakers to share details.

Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) shared that an agreement on the `For the People Act’ was near after Senators Raphael Warnock (D-GA) and Manchin met with Schumer this week. A new version of the bill, she said, would address gerrymandering, vote by mail, automatic voter registration, and include provisions that tackle election subversion. There have also been negotiations to potentially reform the filibuster.

“I’m hopeful we’ll be able to pass the For the People Act very soon,” said Klobuchar. “Time and again, there have been people who have stood up to protect the right to vote. This is a bipartisan goal. We need to make passing this legislation our foremost priority. Republicans, Independents, and Democrats support the provisions in the [bill] and want to see action toward saving our democracy.”
As the legislative negotiations continue apace, leaders nationwide keep raising their voices.

Rev. Jesse Jackson, Barbara Arnwine, president of the Transformative Justice Coalition, and Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, were arrested on July 26 in Arizona outside the office of Sen. Kyrsten Sinema. On July 31, Poor People’s Campaign activists finished a 27-mile march from Georgetown, Texas that culminated in a rally at the Austin state capitol.

They marched this Monday in D.C. to the Senate building and hundreds were arrested. They are demanding an end to the filibuster, passage of the full For the People Act, restoration of the full Voting Rights Act, and a federal minimum wage of $15 per hour.

In the meantime, Black women leaders of voting rights groups–Stacey Abrams of Fair Fight Action, former First Lady Michelle Obama’s When We All Vote, and LaTosha Brown co-founder of Black Voters Matter to name a few–are advocating in various ways.

Melanie Campbell, head of NCBCP and convener of the Black Women’s Roundtable, said sistas’ and their allies are determined to march, call lawmakers, sit-in, stand up and even be arrested to bring about change. “The voter suppression taking place in states nationwide is an attempt to silence our voices and prevent us from using our democratic right to vote,” Campbell said. “We will continue to show up in the Senate to demonstrate to our [Congressional] Representatives exactly what the stakes are and why we must act immediately to guarantee the right to vote for all people.”

Arndrea Waters King, president of the Drum Major Institute, noted: “The torch has now been passed to a new generation, and it really is up to us,” she said.  “It’s our time to continue to feed the flames of peace, justice and equity, in our nation and our world, and to stand for laws that lift us all up and not limit us.”

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