The US South, a legacy of slavery at the polls
By Susana Samhan
File photo showing Brian Kemp speaking during the funeral ceremony for civil rights leader, the Rev. C.T.Vivian. EFE-EPA /ERIK S. LESSER /File
By Susana Samhan
Nashville, Tennessee, Oct 27 (efe-epa).- Fifty-five years have passed since civil rights activist Rev. C.T. Vivian was beaten in front of television cameras by Selma, Alabama, Sheriff James Clark when he protested against discrimination against African Americans at the polls, but moves to take away the right to vote from blacks and other minorities have not disappeared, especially in the southern United States, where the wounds of racism remain open.
Four hundred years of slavery have left a deep impression, especially in southern states like Tennessee, where not all citizens are equal when the times comes to cast their votes, despite the approval months after the Selma episode of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which eliminated obstacles that impeded African Americans from going to the polls.
Despite the advances, nit-picking on how to discriminate against certain groups of voters has become more sophisticated since then, up to the point where in 2020 people who participate in protests have been criminalized and their right to vote impeded. And all this comes in a year marked by demonstrations and racial disturbances after the death of African American George Floyd in Minneapolis in May at the hands of a white policeman.
It seems that time has not passed at the American Baptist College in Nashville, where Vivian - who died July 17 - studied. And he died on the same day as another civil rights leader, Congressman John Lewis.
Since 1924, this seminary has been training future African American pastors in the Baptist denomination, and it has been closely linked to the struggle for equal rights.
The college's vice president for Institutional Advancement, Communications and Marketing, Phyllis Qualls, recalled in remarks to EFE that inequalities at voting time are the inheritance of a past in the US where "cotton was king" and slaves had to collect the cotton for their masters.
Slaves were the "economic engine for the southern plantation owners" and after they were freed they metamorphosed into sharecroppers but, in a certain way, they were still the property of the white plantation owners, such that when there was a change ... in the southern states, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia ... Tennessee remained divided, Qualls said as it poured outside.
Regarding election discrimination, nowadays it is embodied in the tactics to suppress the vote, which in Tennessee is being undertaken by the Republican Party, which has a majority in both chambers of the General Assembly, the state legislature. A Republican also sits in the governor's mansion.
The requirement that voters must bring an identification document to the polls containing a photo, something that many people don't have in a country where there is no national ID card, or the prohibition from voting for people who have certain types of criminal records are examples of the efforts to suppress the vote of minorities.
The reality is that the Tennessee state legislature and its lawmakers are a super-majority of the "Trumpist Republican kind," and this has really had an impact, said the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in that state, Hedy Weinberg, who told EFE that in the last 10 days state authorities have pushed through laws to impede access to the polls.
In 2020, Republican leaders in Tennessee are taking advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to make it more difficult for some voters - those most affected by Covid-19, that is African Americans and Hispanics - to cast their ballots.
In contrast to other states that have made it possible for all electors to receive their ballots in a safe and secure way by mail because of the pandemic, Tennessee has not conducted itself in that way.
The ACLU, along with other plaintiffs, "went to court" since Tennessee was one of the four states that prohibited all eligible voters from being issued a vote-by-mail ballot. The court ruled that people with preexisting conditions could vote by mail but others still could not do so even if they were afraid of becoming infected with Covid-19 at the polls, Weinberg said.
The coronavirus, police violence and inequality were some of the concerns that Nashville residents mentioned when consulted by EFE at an early voting center at the Bellevue library, one of the centers that is registering the largest number of early voters.
It was 11 am and the vast majority of those standing in line to vote early for the Nov. 3 election were African Americans.
Franklin, a 29-year-old truck driver, was clear about what he wants politicians to provide: Equality of opportunity because if there's no equality of opportunity, then everything is one-sided, and "everyone has to be equal."
Activist Charlane Oliver, the president of the Equity Alliance non-governmental organization, personally has experienced what it is to suffer an attempt by the authorities to coopt the vote, after her organization, in coalition with about 20 other groups, in 2018 launched an initiative with an eye toward the mid-term elections to register 55,000 African American voters.
They were able to exceed their goal and register 91,000 people in less than two months, she said, adding however that "this caused a very negative reaction in the state ... because we were registering people of color."
Specifically, Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett, a Republican, tried to approve a rule to criminalize groups that register voters, with penalties of up to a year in prison and fines of up to $10,000, although after a lawsuit by Equity Alliance that rule had to be rescinded.
But things have not stopped there, since two months ago the legislature convened a special session in the middle of the pandemic to prevent demonstrators, young people, from protesting in front of the state capitol, said Oliver.
Then, the governor approved a law to make it a crime to camp out on federal property, and "now they can put you in prison and you can lose your right to vote if you're protesting after 10 pm," the activist said.
Due to the lack of official figures on the number of people affected by these voter suppression practices, a study conducted by Northern Illinois University found that in 1996 Tennessee was No. 10 on the list of states ranked for ease of voting and now it is the third-most-difficult state in which to cast ballots.