Lamentations and cries that the Republicans were at it again trying to suppress the black vote arose when the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency announced on September 30th that because of budget cuts it would close thirty-one part-time-county-owned satellite drivers’ license offices. Eight of these were in counties where seventy-five percent of the registered voters are black. Many are in rural communities with high poverty rates and little or no public transportation. In addition to protesting, active and determined organizing to obtain the required voter identification for the unregistered might be a useful strategy in countering Alabama Republicans’ move.
Birmingham Democratic Party Congresswoman Terri Sewell, and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton justifiably criticized Alabama’s actions. They, and others, characterized it as another blatant effort at insidious violation of the right to vote accelerated by the Supreme Court gutting the Voting Rights Act in Shelby v Holder (2013). The Court took away from the federal government the power to pre-clear voting changes in Alabama and other states with a long record of racially discriminatory voting. Congress has so far refused to pass corrective legislation leaving these states with the ability to enact changes unfettered by federal intervention. The Justice Department can bring a case when it finds that a “totality of circumstances” supports the existence of discrimination, but the process involves lengthy and costly investigation and litigation. In addition, the NAACP-Legal Defense Fund has already sent a letter of protest to the state on behalf of Greater Birmingham ministries and the Alabama State Conference of the NAACP.
The Alabama closures combined with a 2011 voter ID law, implemented in 2014, certainly requires immediate resistance, protest and demands for investigation by the Justice Department, however, finding ways to nullify any negative impact is also urgently necessary. Organizing potential voters to obtain ID’s from the approved list, including Alabama state photo free ID’s issued by each county registrar, remains an option.
Whether oblivious or bent on needless provocation, Alabama Governor Robert Bentley should have expected immediate criticism. After all, this is a state whose history is steeped in racist oppression. Knowledge about it has been rekindled even for those too young to have personal stories upon seeing the movie Selma. Starkly listed among the names of the counties designated for closure, there is “Bloody Lowndes” with its long history of whites retaliating against blacks who sought to utilize their freedom after the Civil War. This is where the Lowndes County Christian Movement for Human Rights decided to organize an all-black, countywide, third party—the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, choosing as their ballot symbol a snarling black panther, thus becoming the Black Panther Party. This inspired the founders of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in Oakland, California to adopt the label.
Also, on the Alabama Motor Vehicle Department’s closure list is Macon County where Tuskeegee University founded by Booker T. Washington in 1881 remains one of the nation’s major historically black academic institutions. This county is where in Gomillion v. Lightfoot (1960), the United States Supreme Court ruled that the state legislature had violated the 15th Amendment by redefining Tuskeegee’s boundaries fencing out all but four or five black voters from the city and none of the white voters or residents to deny blacks the right to vote in municipal elections.
There is much work to be done in response to Alabama’s actions. The NAACP, the Advancement Project, the NAACP LDF and other civil rights organizations should press the Justice Department to move as quickly as possible. The Department will figure out how to take into account Alabama’s budgetary claims and insistence that out of 1.2 million driver licenses issued, the busiest of these thirty-one satellite locations performed less than 2,000 transactions during 2014.
The civil rights organizations, churches, fraternities and sororities and other local groups could, for example, make sure non-registered voters, who don’t have the resources, possess whatever documentation is required and transport them to the still operating motor vehicle offices or County registrar’s offices to obtain ID’s. This can be done while working on ending voter suppression. After all, individuals need photo ID’s not only to vote but often to even enter buildings where government or medical services or provided. The groups undertaking this work will need outside financial contributions given the intense poverty among local residents in the affected areas.
Combined with candidates and issues that give the unregistered something to vote for, a “Let’s get ID’d, Let’s get registered,” campaign may not only inspire more registration but more actual turnout on Election Day. And let us hope that more turnouts will engender much needed positive political change.
About the Author
Mary Frances Berry is the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania, and the former chairwoman of the United States Commission on Civil Rights. Her new book, published in February 2016, is Five Dollars and a Pork Chop Sandwich: Vote Buying and the Corruption of Democracy. Follow her on Twitter at @DrMFBerry.