The crowd squeezed into Greater Abyssinia Baptist Church in Cleveland last night to eagerly receive their marching orders from some of the most powerful and influential leaders in the land, led by Rev. Al Sharpton. The task at hand? To fight for their voting rights as their own state of Ohio, in addition to many others around the country, attempts to impose new voting restrictions that experts say will disproportionately impact African Americans and other voters of color.
Ohio is one of the dozen states that will now require voters to show government-issued picture IDs in order to cast a ballot. The state also eliminated early voting for the last three days before the election—which particularly hurts voting campaigns in the black church because many pastors in 2008 conducted large-scale marches down to the polls at the end of church services on the Sunday before election day. According to Ohio officials, 56 percent of African Americans in Ohio voted early in 2008.
At least 15 states have passed laws that could make voting more difficult for blacks and up to 38 states are weighing legislation that would require people to show government-approved photo identification or provide proof of citizenship before registering or casting ballots. New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice released a study last year that said the new laws “may sharply tilt the political terrain for the 2012 election” by restricting voting access for up to 5 million people, mostly people of color, the poor and the elderly.
Rev. Sharpton and his National Action Network are traversing the country over the next two months, hitting at least 25 cities in the states where voting laws have changed since 2008. Yesterday their target was Cleveland, where they chose Greater Abyssinia Baptist Church to conduct workshops with volunteers, instructing them on how to make sure Ohio residents get valid IDs that will enable them to vote. Sharpton said it is part of his Network’s two-pronged strategy—fighting the imposition of the laws on a national and statewide level, and on a more local and grassroots level ensuring that as many people as possible get the IDs they now need. The Network in recent weeks has already hit the ground in Florida (Tampa, Miami and Orlando), Georgia (Atlanta and Augusta) and Ohio. Sharpton said they will continue to travel to the cities where voters are imperiled by the new laws—particularly in the battleground states for the November election, such as Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida.
Illustrating the seriousness of the issue, Sharpton was joined at Greater Abyssinia yesterday by some of the top political and religious leaders in the state of Ohio, including Senator Sherrod Brown, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, civil rights icon Rev. Otis Moss Jr., Ohio State Senator Nina Turner and Rev. Emmitt Theophilus Caviness, who has pastored Greater Abyssinia for 51 years.
Rev. Sharpton, speaking at a luncheon for the leaders earlier in the day, said it was a contradiction for the nation to erect a national monument in Washington, D.C., honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the same time as leaders in the Republican Party are working to take away the same voting rights that King ultimately gave his life to secure.
“Don’t get caught on Memory Lane talking about what Dr. King and them did in Selma,” Sharpton cautioned the room full of leaders. “You got your day right now. We have a real threat to the social order established in the Civil Rights Movement. Fifty-six percent of blacks here voted early in 2008. There’s a reason they want to cut that off.”
Sharpton said the Republican claims that they are trying to eliminate fraud are bogus and transparent.
“If they were so afraid of fraud, why didn’t they ask for voter IDs during the Republican primary?” he said. “We’re not that stupid—they’re targeting us, they’re not targeting fraud.”
For many senior citizens, finding transportation to get to government offices and paying the $20 or $25 it would cost to get a valid ID is prohibitive, particularly in rural areas where there is no public transportation and government offices may be many towns away.
“That’s why I say this election isn’t about Obama, it’s about your momma,” he said.
Sharpton left the church to do his nationally syndicated radio show, which reaches 40 markets across the country, and then his one-hour show on MSNBC, “Politics Nation.” He has been using both forums to incessantly push the issue of the voter ID laws and the millions who may be disenfranchised.
But Sharpton was back at Greater Abyssinia later in the evening for a public rally, where an overflow crowd heard from a succession of powerful speakers who put the issue in stark and dramatic historical terms.
Rev. Moss listed some of the bloody and deadly incidents that occurred during the Civil Rights Movement, including the Selma march, the deaths of Emmett Till and Dr. Martin Luther King and the four little girls killed in the Birmingham church bombing.
“All of this was to bring us the right to vote,” said Moss, the retired pastor of Cleveland’s Olivet Institutional Baptist Church who was a trusted partner of Dr. King’s during the movement. “When I look at what is happening in our state of Ohio, I can hear the children asking, ‘Momma, is that Selma?’ I wish I could say, ‘No.’ But we have to say it’s slavery by another name. It’s Jim Crow in new garments.”
State Sen. Turner said that the “foolishness” going on in Columbus, the state capital, makes her feel like Jim Crow has made a return in her lifetime.
“Jim Crow has packed his bags, left the South, and moved North,” she said in a fiery speech from the church pulpit.
But the highlight of the evening, the person the crowd of 1,200 was waiting with palpable anticipation to hear, was Sharpton.
“We’re still in the Civil Rights Movement,” Sharpton reminded the crowd.
But he told the audience not to be deterred by Republican efforts to disenfranchise them.
“They need to talk to us with respect,” he thundered from the pulpit as the crowd jumped to its feet. “They need to know, I’m not scared of you. My daddy beat your daddy, and I can beat you too.”