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What it would take to pass meaningful voting rights legislation in America

Election Day at Hollis-Brookline High School in Hollis. Bill Kotelly was voting. (Allegra Boverman/NHPR)
Election Day at Hollis-Brookline High School in Hollis. Bill Kotelly was voting. (Allegra Boverman/NHPR)

Election Day 2020 saw the highest voter turn-out in more than a century. But ever since, Republicans have been passing laws across the country to restrict voting rights. They say it’s about ballot integrity.

But Maine Sen. Angus King calls it something else: stone-cold partisan voter suppression.

This year, at least 19 states have enacted 33 laws that make it harder to vote.

While Senate Republicans have used the filibuster to block a major voting rights bill.

This hour, On Point:  In America, the right to vote is supposed to be the great equalizer. What would it take to pass meaningful voting rights legislation?


Jack Beatty, On Point news analyst. (@JackBeattyNPR)

Tia Mitchell, Washington correspondent for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. (@TIAreports)

Sen. Angus King, U.S. senator from Maine. (@SenAngusKing)

LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, a voting rights organization. (@MsLaToshaBrown)

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Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, voting rights activist and retired religion professor at the University of Florida. (@GZoharah)

Transcript: Activist Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons reflects on her fight to vote

Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons has fought for her right to vote. Born in 1944 in Memphis, Tennessee during the Jim Crow era, local laws enforced racial segregation in states like hers. She was raised by her grandmother, and describes her childhood as a happy one. But quickly, she began to notice her life was not what she wanted it to be:

It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I started wanting to do things and realizing, I can’t go to the library. That’s crazy. We couldn’t go to the art museum. We had one day that we could go to the zoo. So, you know, as you got older and realized all of the things you couldn’t do because of the color of your skin. So by the time I was a junior in high school, I was growing very angry.

Simmons attended Spelman College in Atlanta in the early 1960s, and despite her grandmother’s wish that she focus on her studies, she started volunteering for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, a national civil rights movement of students.

In 1964, Simmons learned about Freedom Summer, which sent a thousand volunteers to Mississippi to register Black Americans to vote. That year, fewer than seven out of 100 eligible Black voters in Mississippi were registered. Simmons says that’s how Mississippi lawmakers wanted it to be.

The laws that were put in place — everything from poll taxes, to basically the registrar could ask you to do something as ridiculous as counting the number of jelly beans in a big jar of jelly beans. And that on top of the terror, because often if you attempted to register, your name would be called down to the sheriff and the sheriff would let your employer know. I mean, it was a system, a total system of the denial of the right to vote.

In June of 1964, Simmons went to Freedom Summer orientation in Oxford, Ohio for two weeks. While she was there, three Freedom Summer activists were murdered by Klansmen in Mississippi. It sent shockwaves through the Freedom Summer organization.

Still, Simmons traveled to Laurel, Mississippi, where she joined two other Freedom Riders, going door to door, trying to convince people to register to vote.

I looked out the very first house that I went to, the first door that I knocked on. This woman, she looked like she was in her 50s. And I was still trying to figure out, how do you ask somebody to get involved? It’s so dangerous. And I was kind of stammering, trying to figure out how to ask her, and she looked me up and down. She knew I wasn’t from there. You know, I had an afro and very few people wore afros then. And she said, Are you a freedom rider? And I said, Yes, ma’am. And she said, Come in, I’ve been waiting on you all my life.

She’d been waiting a long time just to register to vote. But state and local laws made that almost impossible.

Now we knew we were not going to be able to get people registered, so we were going to hold mock voter registration drives anywhere we could. At churches, at barbershops. And so across the state, thousands of Black people registered to vote in the mock elections. The purpose was to show to the Democratic Party, and to the nation, that Black people wanted to register to vote. And we had thousands who had already filled out forms. They had been notarized. So we had the proof.

Simmons ended up staying in Mississippi for 18 months. She led the freedom schools where she taught Black students about African American history and how the government works — education they weren’t getting from the state schools.

In 1965, she joined a voting rights protest march in Jackson, the state capital, where she was arrested with about 1,000 other people, and detained for two weeks.

There was no place to put all of us who were arrested inside their jails. So they put us on the fairgrounds, in what were like stockades. So we were put in the buildings that normally would have held the livestock. Then they brought in these men, and I don’t think by any stretch of the imagination were they law officials. And they circled us and they began beating us with sticks, billy clubs.

That same year, Simmons’ sacrifice appeared to pay off. Congress passed the landmark Voting Rights Act. She says the law, which prohibits discrimination in voting, gets to the core of what it means to be American and to live in a democracy.

The Voting Rights Act, the federal Voting Rights Act, which sent in federal registrars into the state of Mississippi, they registered, really registered, legally registered thousands of Black people. And so that was the beginning of the end of the denial of the right to vote in Mississippi and other places in the south, where Black people have been prevented from voting. So the vote is fundamental, is foundational. We don’t have a democracy without it.

From The Reading List

Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “Democratic frustration boils over with lack of progress on voting rights” — “On the same day that a Democratic proposal for federal election standards was blocked by a Republican filibuster, one of Georgia’s most prominent voting rights activists aired her frustrations on social media.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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