By Ben Jealous
During the civil rights movement’s struggle against discrimination and voter suppression in Jim Crow America, the Black Church was a source of refuge and resolve. Today, a new wave of voter suppression laws is targeting Black voters, and new generations of Black clergy are bringing their moral authority to a campaign to defend the Black vote.
We need these prophetic voices. The new Jim Crow doesn’t look exactly like the old Jim Crow, but it is grounded in the same assault on the dignity, humanity, and citizenship rights of Black Americans. We need our communities’ truth-tellers to speak out. Because the new Jim Crow is grounded in layers of lies.
The Big Lie told by former President Donald Trump and his supporters is that he won the 2020 election, but had his victory stolen by corrupt election officials and Black and brown people casting fraudulent votes.
The existence of widespread voter fraud is itself a lie. It has been debunked over and over again. But Republicans in dozens of states are using that lie to justify new restrictive voting rules. They claim to be protecting “election integrity” but they are really trying to make it harder for some Black and brown people to cast a ballot and have it counted.
Right-wing lawmakers feel free to impose discriminatory voting rules thanks to another lie—this one told by John Roberts, the Chief Justice of the United States. He justified the decision of a conservative majority of the Court in 2013 to abolish a key enforcement mechanism of the Voting Rights Act by saying in effect that racial discrimination in voting was a thing of the past.
States from across the old Confederacy proved him wrong, by acting to impose new restrictions on registration and voting. Some went into effect just hours after the Supreme Court gave them the green light.
That was bad enough. But the right wing’s voter suppression machinery really kicked into high gear after the 2020 election. Republican lawmakers saw that Black voter turnout helped President Joe Biden win key battleground states. And they vowed not to let that happen again.
Republican lawmakers’ strategy for holding onto power is not to reach out to Black voters, but to shut them out. But we won’t be shut out. We will push Congress to pass the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, two laws that are needed to overturn the new Jim Crow laws and prevent future restrictions on voting.
The late Rep. John Lewis told us in his farewell message last year that if we don’t use our right to vote, it can be taken from us. This year we are seeing new efforts to take the vote from us because we voted.
We can’t let politicians turn us around. At People For the American Way, we are investing more resources in our Defend the Black Vote project. We are sounding the alarm about disenfranchisement. And we are building our capacity to reach, educate, and mobilize even more Black voters than we did in 2020 through digital media, paid advertising, and an ambitious peer-to-peer texting program.
And we will continue to be inspired by the vision and leadership of Black clergy like the Rev. Timothy McDonald, who launched the African American Ministers Leadership Council and its Souls to the Polls movement more than 20 years ago. When Georgia Republicans tried to shut down Souls to the Polls by banning early voting on Sundays, Rev. McDonald called them out as “the Klan in three-piece suits.”
Rev. McDonald’s righteous truth-telling shamed Georgia Republicans into dropping that part of their voter suppression plan. But the rest of it became law—including the infamous ban on groups providing water to people forced to wait in long voting lines. Voting rights activists have gone to court to challenge the Georgia law and others like it. Organizers will do everything possible to help Black voters overcome any new obstacles that have been put between them and the ballot box.
And the Black church will once again give voice to the aspirations of our people, drawing on a long tradition of prophetic witness against injustice combined with strategic organizing on behalf of freedom and equality.
“We endured slavery, Jim Crow and lynching by being creative and strategic,” Rev. McDonald told CNN. “We’re going to use their own tools and throw them back at them. We have to beat them at their own game.”
Ben Jealous is currently president of People For the American Way in Washington, D.C. and is the former national president & CEO of the NAACP. He is also a visiting scholar at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.