I just watched a film about the history and current state of Black voter suppression, and I want to shine a light on the movie and its call to action. Stacey Abrams lost her gubernatorial bid in 2018 and then she unleashed her organizational powers to fight for voter rights. All In: The Fight for Democracy, a recent Amazon Studios release, raises our understanding of Abrams’ work by tracing Black voter suppression from the birth of the nation to the year 2020. Interviews, broadcast footage of pivotal events, and visual storytelling helped me see the urgency and the challenges in protecting Black voter rights.
Ari Berman, the well-known political author, makes a strong case in the movie: “The greatest moments of progress are followed by the most intense periods of retrenchment.” This battle is not over, and we can all pitch in as we did for the recent elections. (See my previous blog, Georgia Volunteering: Did It Help Reverse Systemic Racism?) Rotten Tomatoes gives All In a 100% rating and I credit the film with opening my eyes. Here are some things I learned by watching the movie.
1870 – The 15th Amendment was passed and Black men, their slave chains barely unshackled, could now both vote and hold office. For a brief period, 67% of Black men in Mississippi were registered to vote. Then the Jim Crow laws were launched, starting with the Mississippi Plan of 1875. Voter suppression was the top priority. In 1890, Mississippi passed a new constitution, featuring poll taxes and literacy tests (that today’s law students cannot pass!). Other states mirrored these efforts and Black voting was effectively eradicated throughout the South, with only 3% of age-eligible Black voters registered as late as 1940.
1965 – Voting rights were the primary focus of the Selma to Montgomery march when the nation witnessed brutality at the Edmund Pettus Bridge on live television. The film provides new insights into how the march gave Lyndon Baines Johnson the leverage to tackle voting rights after expending so much political capital on the Civil Rights Act just one year prior. The Voting Rights Act (VRA) was passed within months of the march and Black voter participation grew overnight to 53%. Four republican presidents reauthorized and expanded the VRA and watching them opine in the movie provides a stark contrast to the politics of fall-winter 2020.
2008 – Barack Obama’s victory turned out to be a win-lose for voting rights. The election of the first Black president engaged 15 million new voters, with strong voter growth among Blacks. It also led to a huge backlash among white politicians. Much like the Jim Crow reaction to the 15th Amendment, Obama’s victory was answered with a series of dramatic reversals to the VRA.
2013 – Shelby County vs Holder. I had no idea how important this Obama victory repercussion really was. This film woke me to the importance of this 5-4 Supreme Court decision that essentially overturned the Voting Rights Act. The film explains the history of Chief Justice Roberts as a protégé of William Rehnquist and traces Rehnquist to his personal voter suppression activities in Arizona in the early 1960s. Eric Holder and others involved in the case explain how this decision led to:
- Poll closures
- Voter intimidation
- Purges of the voter rolls
- Strict Voter ID: photos, signature matches, address matches
It all feels so real and current. And the 2016 victory for Donald Trump comes into clear focus as swing state politicians on both sides of the fence explain how these voter suppression tactics helped to secure his victory.
2018 – Florida passed the Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative. Who would have imagined that 10% of voting aged adults in Florida were convicted felons? In one elective victory, 1.4 million Floridians were given the right to vote. Then just two years later, that right was curtailed for 800,000 of them as they were suddenly required to repay old court debts without the ability to discover what debts they owed.
2018 – Stacey Abrams lost to Brian Kemp in the race to occupy the Governor’s mansion. The 55,000-vote margin was far less than the number of votes that were disallowed. The voter suppression statistics presented in the film are stunning. For example, 1.4 million GA voters were “purged” from voting roles (no, this is not a typo), 107,000 for voting too infrequently! GA voting restrictions created so many hurdles that both Brian Kemp and Stacey Abrams were told they could not vote when showing up at their respective polling locations on election day. Live TV news footage from that day shows how these odd scenes unfolded.
While the data and the political history tell a compelling tale, a more personal tale is recounted by Stacey Abrams along with her mother and father. It is a story about Stacey’s first attempt to enter the Georgia Governor’s mansion. She was class valedictorian at Georgia’s Avondale High School and this honor came with an invitation to visit the governor, an invitation extended to all valedictorians statewide. Stacey and her parents dressed in their Sunday best, hopped on a public bus, and stepped off in the front of the mansion. Before I go further. . . let us not forget . . . Stacey and her parents are Black. Three Black people stepped off a bus to visit with the Governor, invitation in hand. What happened next was amazing. I guess you will just have to watch the movie to find out!
Postscript: Visit the film’s website to gather more information, host discussions about the movie, and take action to restore voting rights. https://www.allinforvoting.com/