How We Keep Our Voting Rights

Published on August 18, 2020.

The November elections are about more than just who will win or lose. The anxiety and apprehension reportedly surrounding them is the latest example of the long-running dispute over voting rights, since key parts of the Voting Rights Act were invalidated in 2013 by the Supreme Court.

States with a history of discriminatory voter laws have been able to change laws, gerrymander districts and impose greater restrictions without federal oversight. Different states create election boards according to the party in power. As Linda noted then, and reiterates now, changing restrictive voting laws is critical to our future and our democracy.

The past is very close to us. We have been here before, as Linda relates.

I remember when I was about seven years old, my mother took me with her to a small country store that served as a store, gas station, post office and now I know a voter registration center.
We went in and stood in line behind another woman at the post office window. It was the fall of 1960. We waited for what seemed forever, as cigarette smoke engulfed us from the farmers who were sitting around the pot-bellied stove in the middle of the store, gossiping about the weather and how their crops had done over the past year.

In 2017, Linda Stout visited the site of the country store in Asheboro, NC.

Finally, it was my mother’s turn. She gently told the man that she wanted to take the test. “But you don’t have to Mrs. Stout. You’re white!” My mother stated that if the woman in front of her had to take the test, she had to take the test. Again the man declared, “But that test is just for colored people!”

My mother insisted on taking the test. She read from the Constitution, and then had to write down what the man read to her from the Constitution. You could hear a pin drop in the store. Everyone had stopped talking and was staring at us. I had no idea what my mother was doing, but I knew enough to feel afraid and think we were in trouble. I thought she was doing something very wrong.

I always remembered what happened, but it was several years before I talked to my mother about it. By then, I was able to understand that she was standing up for something good – for insisting on being treated the same as the African American woman who was being treated differently because of the color of her skin.

The past is very close to us, in some cases only a generation away. The generations since slavery can be counted on one hand, said Hilary Green, an associate professor of history at the University of Alabama. The Washington Post described the story of Daniel Smith, still alive at 88, “a member of an almost vanished demographic: The child of someone once considered a piece of property instead of a human being.” He would have been the first person in his family who could cast a ballot.

What he tells the newspaper reporter is so frightening and disturbing: the years feel to Mr. Smith like an accordion — the decades folding, folding — back toward slavery “almost to the point where it could happen again.”

We know we cannot slip back. Yet lines at poll places get longer; the Postal Service is tasked with ensuring mail-in balloting with insufficient funding; party organizations, campaigns and interest groups have filed 160 lawsuits across the country trying to shape the rules of the election.

It would be a long time before I truly understood racism, and the kind of racism that is embedded in our voting laws. My mother showed me that we should stand up for people being treated differently. We can stand up for people like Mr. Smith, his children and grandchildren, and we can honor his enslaved father by doing all we can do to safeguard voting rights for all.

Blue Ridge Mountains, Fletcher, NC, 2019, photo courtesy Blue Rock Farm Productions.

You can help us preserve voting rights and fight systemic racism with your donation. Spirit in Action trains volunteers to create the leadership infrastructure that builds power within disenfranchised communities, where grassroots folks hold top positions, locally, statewide and nationally, and learn how to hold public officials accountable. This is the way we establish strength and issue-based empowerment for rural, low-income and marginalized people through 2024 and beyond.

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