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Voting signs at a polling location in Selma, Ala., for the 2008 presidential election. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

‘Block the Vote’ Blowback

GOP photo ID voting laws have energized African-American activists. Their anger could end up helping Democrats in November.

BY Theo Anderson

This kind of engagement by religious institutions was critical to the civil-rights movement half a century ago.

In 2008, when Sen. John McCain won just four percent of the black vote, it looked like the GOP couldn’t do any worse among African Americans in a presidential election. But that’s now a real possibility.

Republicans were pleased with George W. Bush’s 11 percent share of the African-American vote in 2004, and they hoped to do even better four years ago. But that was before Bush’s disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina, and before Democrats chose Barack Obama as their presidential candidate.

The GOP’s recent behavior has done nothing to help the party’s reputation among African-American voters. In January, for example, South Carolina’s Republican Attorney General, Alan Wilson, announced an investigation into the fact that more than 900 dead people had voted in recent state elections. The subsequent investigation turned up a lot of human error but no fraud.

Still, Republicans have used such false charges of widespread fraud to mount an aggressive “block the vote” campaign, and they’ve pushed through new restrictions on voting rights in 14 states, according to a report (PDF) released last year by the National Association for the Advancement of Color People. The restrictions include photo ID requirements and “provisions that will curtail voter access to registration, inhibit critical voter registration drives, limit voting periods and tighten the ability to cast ballots.”

According to the report, there is a clear method to the way the restrictions have been imposed. They’ve become law primarily in states “with large communities of color where political participations has surged.” To put it bluntly, they’re aimed at suppressing the black vote.

The good news is that this campaign to curtail voting rights is sparking an increase in political activism and engagement by African-American churches, whose organizing muscle will play an important role in the 2012 election. Over the longer term, these institutions might also become key players in a coalition of progressive activists.

The seeds of a new era of activism are evident, for example, in the embrace of the Occupy movement by some prominent black religious leaders.

Among the most prominent is Rev. Jamal Harrison Bryant, who is now pastor of the Empowerment Temple megachurch in Baltimore and was formerly the national youth director for the NAACP. In January, an article in the Washington Post noted the growing ties between Occupy D.C. and the city’s African-American pastors, including Bryant. On Martin Luther King Day, pastors across the U.S. coordinated with the Occupy movement to hold protests at ten Federal Reserve Banks.

More recently, Bryant and other religious leaders have been promoting the Empowerment Movement, which is a voting initiative that takes direct aim at the GOP’s anti-voting efforts. It aimed to register 1 million African-American voters on Easter by encouraging the nation’s estimated 50,000 African-American churches to hold a registration drive. The campaign has the support of several denominational bodies, and the drive will continue this spring.

The Empowerment Movement’s ambitious goal seems to be creating genuine, grassroots energy. An article in the Waterloo (Iowa) Courier last week noted that a local pastor, Rev. Frantz Whitfield, had been “organizing local efforts and planned to distribute fliers and registration forms to pastors in the city’s 30-plus predominantly black churches.” Whitfield connected the effort to Easter by offering that “we want to resurrect our right to vote.”

This kind of engagement by religious institutions was critical to the civil-rights movement half a century ago. A vast network of churches supplied the movement with leaders, laypeople and organizing savvy–and a prophetic language, deeply rooted in their faith tradition, with which to critique the injustices of American society.

Only time will tell whether the recent alliances between Occupy and African-American churches, and initiatives such as the Empowerment Movement, are temporary bursts of activism or the early stages of a burgeoning movement on behalf of civil rights and economic equality. But whatever they are, they have consequences for this fall’s elections at all levels.

Even without the GOP’s efforts to suppress voting, the African-American voter turnout has historically been lower than that of whites. In 2008, 65.2 percent of eligible black voters cast a vote, which was an increase of nearly 5 percent over 2004–but still lower than the 66.1 percent of eligible whites who voted. An uptick of just a few points can easily swing close races, since African Americans vote overwhelmingly Democratic.

As countless pop and country songs have observed over the years, you never know what you’ve got till it’s gone. The GOP’s quest to effectively disenfranchise voters might become the best voter-registration drive and get-out-the-vote campaign that the Democrats could have hoped for. By curtailing African Americans’ most basic right as citizens, Republicans may be fueling a fire that burns out of their control.

Theo Anderson, an In These Times staff writer, is writing a book about the historical and contemporary influence of pragmatism on American politics. He has a Ph.D. in American history from Yale University and teaches history and literature seminars at the Newberry Library in Chicago.

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