TEXT ON SCREEN: Alabama Primary Elections, March 3, 2020
CYNTHIA DONALD: I brought my mother to vote at the Southside Homes Community Center only to have been told after 60 years of voting that she had been purged from the system.
NARRATION: Even as the coronavirus raises new questions about the safety of voting, some Black Americans say they are encountering obstacles that remind them of the past.
CYNTHIA DONALD (BESSEMER, ALABAMA): I cannot come to grips with it, that my mother, my own mother cannot vote after all that she’s been through. She came through the civil rights era. She said, “I have gone through many years where I could not vote. I want to vote, Cynthia.”
THE ONGOING FIGHT
NARRATION: The right to vote was hard won – for African American women in particular, who played a significant, and sometimes overlooked role in a struggle that cut across both the suffrage and civil rights movements. And they remain at the forefront of the fight to expand access to the ballot today.
SHEILA TYSON: You got to make sure you go vote.
NARRATION: Sheila Tyson works with girls in Birmingham, Alabama on civics education and political engagement.
SHEILA TYSON (JEFFERSON COUNTY COMMISSIONER): We introduce them to the whole history of voting, how the state house is ran. How do you pass a bill? How do you get your brother, your church member, to actually participate in the voting system?
KAMIL GOODMAN (SPEAKING TO CLASSMATES): So we’re going to register you guys to vote today.
KAMIL GOODMAN (A.H. PARKER HIGH SCHOOL): We are educating people, and letting them know the importance of using voting to exercise your right to state your opinion and have a say-so in your everyday life.
SHEILA TYSON: My grandmamma, quoted, she said, “When you invest and educate a man, you have educated a man, but when you invest and educate a woman, you have educated a nation.”
NARRATION: The work of the Birmingham students is rooted in a tradition of activism by African American women who came before them.
MARTHA S. JONES (PROFESSOR OF HISTORY, JOHN HOPKINS UNIVERSITY): These are women who have a long history working together, going all the way back to the Civil War, some of them. They come out of a distinct history, a history that is not captured in a narrative about women’s suffrage associations.
ARCHIVAL (PERISCOPE FILM, 1917-1919):
NEWS REEL: The long fight was officially over.
NARRATION: The campaign for women’s suffrage celebrated the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920.
ARCHIVAL (PERISCOPE FILM, 1917-1919):
NEWS REEL: The suffrage movement was a long story of hard work and heartaches but it was crowned by victory.
NARRATION: But that victory was not felt equally among all women.
GILDA DANIELS (FORMER DEPUTY CHIEF, VOTING SECTION, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE): My grandmother was born in 1919, the year that women were given the right to vote. However, she’s African American and lived in Louisiana. She did not cast a ballot until the 1960s.
MARTHA S. JONES: African American women, even after a constitutional amendment, will still be disenfranchised by state laws, by poll taxes, by grandfather clauses, by understanding tests, by whites-only primary.
NARRATION: So Black women turned to their own networks, including those formed through Black women’s clubs – which had been organizing for decades on voting rights and other campaigns like anti-lynching. And now, they dug in.
MARTHA S. JONES: So how do you pay your poll tax? How do you confront an official who imposes on you a literacy test? This is the on the ground work that has to happen in order for Black women to see the results of women’s suffrage in a meaningful way.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 8-22-64):
FANNIE LOU HAMER (CIVI RIGHTS ACTIVIST): We was met in Indianola by policemen, highway patrolmen and they only allowed two of us in to take the literacy test at the time.
NARRATION: Women like Fannie Lou Hamer, Septima Clark and Diane Nash carried that fight forward into the civil rights era, facing violence and imprisonment in the process.
It wasn’t until the country was forced to come face-to-face with the reality of what Black Americans were experiencing that things began to change.
BILL WHITAKER: Hundreds of marchers heading to the state capitol in Montgomery to protest restrictions on black voting were brutally beaten by sheriff deputies on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
GILDA DANIELS: America could no longer deny what was really going on. To see the utter brutality I think shocked the conscience of the country in a way.
NARRATION: After the violence in Selma, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law in 1965. It outlawed barriers like literacy tests, and put places with a history of discrimination under federal oversight.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 1969):
FRANK REYNOLDS: Since the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Bill, close to one million citizens in seven states have been given the most basic right of citizenship. The vote.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 10-23-68):
NEWS REPORT: Negro voter registration in eleven deep Southern states has increased 50 percent since the 1964 election.
NARRATION: The new law meant that Daniels’ grandmother voted for the first time, and that more Black officials would be elected to office, Including her father.
GILDA DANIELS: My father was the first Black elected to the police jury in our parish, in Winn Parish, Louisiana. And he was able to enter that election and certainly to get elected because of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
NARRATION: And later, the Voting Rights Act came to play a role in Daniels’ own life, when she began working in the Department of Justice’s voting section, which was responsible for enforcing voting laws across the country.
GILDA DANIELS: There was continuing work around ensuring that, particularly people of color in the South had free, fair, non-discriminatory access to the ballot.
NARRATION: The Voting Rights Act required states with a history of discrimination to get federal approval for any voting changes to ensure they were fair to minority voters. Daniels remembers one time when they intervened to stop a polling station from being moved to a particular building.
GILDA DANIELS: The place it was being moved to used to be the place where the Klan met, where the Ku Klux Klan met. Certainly, elderly African Americans would not enter into this building to cast a ballot or for any other reason because of the reminders of the historical past and because of the discrimination and pain, right, that existed in that building.
NARRATION: But nearly 50 years after the Voting Rights Act was passed…
NEWS REPORT: Shelby County, Alabama says the law has outlived its time.
NARRATION:…a Supreme Court decision undercut a crucial section of the act, effectively freeing states from that federal oversight. John Merrill, Alabama’s secretary of state, says the time had come.
JOHN MERRIL (ALABAMA SECRETARY OF STATE): The days that we have had in the past in Alabama and other states in the Union where people have attempted to take advantage of individuals by making it more difficult for them to participate in the process are long gone.
NARRATION: Merrill defends the state’s law requiring a photo ID to vote, saying it can combat fraud. But multiple studies of voting across the country have found such fraud to be extremely rare. And opponents of voter ID laws say they disproportionately impact people of color, the elderly, and low-income voters.
JOHN MERRIL: Nobody’s doing more than we are to make it easy for people to participate in the process.
NARRATION: While some states have embraced reforms, like automatic voter registration, many others have made it harder to vote.
GILDA DANIELS: Moving polling places, closing polling places, purging voter rolls are all things that are now being done without federal approval and we’re seeing the shrinking of the right to vote.
NARRATION: Now with the coronavirus making the safety of polling places an issue, there’s a new push to expand the right to vote – by mail. But that’s being fought by conservative groups.
NEWS REPORT: State and federal officials rethinking how to hold an election during an outbreak.
GILDA DANIELS: Covid-19 is exposing fault lines that already existed in many areas of the country in regards to inequities that exist. The fight to vote has always been about power – who has it and who can get it.
NARRATION: Meanwhile, Black women have shown a powerful commitment to voting over the years, and they’ve emerged as a formidable force in elections.
SHEILA TYSON (ALABAMA COALITION ON BLACK CIVIC PARTICIPATION): It’s all about making people aware of what’s going on in their community. They want to vote, but when you lose all hope and you don’t feel like your vote count, you’ve got to make people understand you can control what actually goes on in your community.
NARRATION: In March, thousands gathered in Selma at the Edmund Pettus Bridge to commemorate the 55th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. Sheila Tyson brought young women from her student group to be there for the event. They plan to keep registering voters and getting people to vote ahead of the election.
SHEILA TYSON: Black women, we are strong and we are hard workers and it’s worth the fight. It’s worth the work that we have to put in to make sure that everyone have a equal right to vote.