50 years on, churches still fight for voting rights

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 turns 50 on Aug. 6, and people of faith had a big hand in that landmark piece of legislation.

Religious leadership was a driving force of the U.S. Civil Rights movement. In the same way that the movement in the 1960s depended upon groups like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, today’s civil rights leaders seek allies in the faith community.

“We’ve seen churches involved in advocacy for years, for generations actually,” said Bill Mefford, director of civil and human rights for the United Methodist Board of Church and Society.

For decades, churches have been outspoken against injustice, and advocated for those who the government marginalizes. Today, United Methodists are still fighting for the rights of people.

United Methodists promote sentencing reform, especially efforts to find better and less expensive ways of rehabilitating nonviolent drug offenders.

“This year we’ve seen United Methodists in Iowa help turn Sen. [Chuck] Grassley (R-Iowa) from [being against] sentencing reform to bringing sentencing reform before Congress,” Mefford said.

Churches have also been active in voting rights. Souls to the Polls is a program in which African-American churches arrange free transportation to the polls for people who would otherwise not have a chance to vote. Some churches bring their congregations to polling stations after Sunday service.

According to federal tax law governing nonprofits, charities, churches and other organizations that are not required to pay a federal income tax cannot “participate or intervene in any political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office.” They can, however, engage in nonpartisan activities such as administering voter education guides, conducting voter registration drives and holding nonpartisan educational forums.

The Rev. D. Anthony Everett, pastor of Wesley United Methodist Church in Lexington, Kentucky, is a longtime supporter of voting rights. A member of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, he supports Kentucky House Bill 70, which seeks to restore voting rights to former felons who have served their prison sentences.

Almost 250,000 Kentuckians cannot vote because of the current law, which permanently takes away former felons’ voting rights unless the governor gives them a pardon. Everett and others believe that voting rights should be restored after people are released from prison. According to the nonpartisan voting rights institute Brennan Center for Justice, only four states — Kentucky, Virginia, Florida and Iowa — have the same voting restrictions.

Everett has led prayer vigils to support Kentucky legislators and HB 70.

Everett believes that churches have a duty to be the voice for under-represented people. “It’s imperative that our churches are on the forefront for least, the last and the lost, those who are oppressed and marginalized those who are lost in our ‘system,’” he said.

Everett points out that Christ was an honest advocate of the oppressed. “Jesus advocated many different ways through healings and teachings,” he said. “Jesus would always stand up for what’s right for all of humanity.”

He encourages churches and clergy to get involved and to “look within their own communities; look at who’s the least the last and the lost in the community. Where is the help needed? Who are the people that need change in their lives?”

Everett says the Civil Rights era and the passing of the Voting Rights Act shows that churches and clergy have the power to change society. “We’ve got to be advocates; we’ve got to stand up so that God is represented. We’ve got to more than just talk; we’ve got to do something about it.”

History of the Act

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on Aug. 6, 1965. The law was designed to enforce the 15th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits the federal and state governments from denying a citizen the right to vote based on that citizen's "race, color, or previous condition of servitude."

The Voting Rights Act changed the face of elections in the United States. Following its passage, in Mississippi alone, voter turnout among blacks increased from 6 percent in 1964 to 59 percent in 1969. President Obama has called it “one of the crowning achievements of our democracy.”

In its 2013 decision on the case Shelby County v. Holder, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key provision in the Voting Rights Act. Under Sections 4 and 5 of the original law, specific states and municipalities with a history of voting discrimination were required to be cleared by the federal government before making changes to their voting laws.

The court invalidated Section 4, which contained a formula that had determined which states had to seek pre-clearance from the Department of Justice to change their voting laws. Once Section 4 was declared unconstitutional, Section 5 — the section with the pre-clearance requirement — became unenforceable.

Civil rights leaders fear this would open the door to new discriminatory rules that would prevent certain people from voting, again denying them the rights they fought so hard for decades ago.

‘We’re not going back’

After the North Carolina legislature passed new voting restrictions in 2013, the Rev. William Barber II, a Disciples of Christ minister and head of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, began “Moral Mondays” protests at the state legislative building. These protests grew into a movement of thousands of people gathering at the state capitol to protest the government peacefully. Several other states, including Georgia, have adopted Moral Mondays.

In June, lawmakers in the U.S. House and Senate introduced the Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would amend the parts of the original 1965 law the Supreme Court struck down. The Voting Rights Advancement Act would require states with 15 voting violations over the past 25 years to submit future election changes for federal approval. It would also require that all 50 states get federal approval for any new barrier to voting or voter registration and publicly post any changes to voting rules within 180 days of an election.

At a June 25 gathering of Progressive National Baptist Convention pastors, U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a civil rights icon and one of the co-sponsors of the new bill, said, “It’s time again for religious leaders, the ministers of the gospel, to get in trouble. There are forces in our country, in Washington and all around America, want to take us back. But we’re not going back. We’ve made too much progress. We’re going forward.”

Smith is an intern at United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Vicki Brown, news editor, [email protected] or 615-742-5469.

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