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Souls to the Polls: black churches and the election

President Obama attends church with his two daughters and their godmother over the weekend. EPA/Dennis Brack

It’s nine days before Election Day in the U.S., and here in Florida, the polls already boast long lines. This weekend over half-a-million Floridians will cast their ballots, some queuing up for nearly five hours in order to vote.

Today (a Sunday) lines will be even longer as the state’s black churches launch their “Souls to the Polls” drive. The Sunday before Election Day historically sees high turnout for black voters. Local churches arrange car pools to neighbourhood polling venues following Sunday services. Typically next Sunday would be an even more important date, but the Republican legislature here has cancelled voting on that day.

The attempt to block “Souls to the Polls” and early voting is of a piece with Republicans’ nationwide efforts to drive down voter participation among Democrats. Stringent voter ID laws, limited polling hours, and voter-roll purges comprise a comprehensive attempt to ensure minorities and the poor, who tend to vote Democratic, can’t participate in this year’s election.

Early in-person voting benefits Democrats because of the peculiar structure of elections in the U.S. Held on a Tuesday but not a federal holiday, the election requires Americans to squeeze in voting before or after work. Those working 12-hour shifts, juggling childcare, or lacking transportation face real limits on their ability to vote. Low-income and minority voters tend to be most affected by the dynamics of workweek voting, and are the constituencies most likely to take advantage of early voting.

Which is why GOP lawmakers have been so keen to limit access to the polls outside working hours. In Ohio, which like Florida is a critical swing state, the Republican legislature has mandated polls in Democratic counties close by 5 pm (Republican counties will have evening and weekend polling hours). Only a court injunction has kept polls open on the Sunday before the election.

That Sunday before the election is crucial to black voters for two reasons. First, black Americans are far less likely than white Americans to have reliable transportation. Rides to the polls, then, become a critical component of the get-out-the-vote drive in black neighbourhoods and are easier to arrange on weekends.

Second, as the “Souls to the Polls” effort suggests, the church plays a central role in black voting. Indeed, the church has served a political, social, and religious function in America’s black community for well over a century, thanks in large part to segregation and systematic disenfranchisement.

Unable to participate in electoral politics between the 1890s and 1960s, black Southerners built leadership and community-service networks in the one place they could regularly gather: their churches. It is not mere happenstance that black civil rights leaders in the 1960s were pastors, nor that the freedom songs of the black freedom struggle were spirituals and hymns.

In 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, a bus boycott began when Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white rider in violation of the city’s segregation ordinance. A few days later, some 5,000 black community members gathered at the local church to hear the words of a 26-year-old pastor.

He told them that their fight against discrimination was just, because it was rooted in the promise of equality and freedom embedded in both the American and Christian tradition. “If we are wrong,” he told the gathered crowd, “the Constitution of the United States is wrong. If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong. If we are wrong, justice is a lie. Love has no meaning.”

The boycott lasted for over a year, ending when both the bus company and the city relented and ended segregation on city busses. The pastor, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., would go on to lead the black freedom struggle for over a decade.

Church-based political organizing, then, has a long tradition among black Americans, one Republicans are trying to thwart. But the GOP’s efforts may be backfiring. As I write today from Miami, a local pastor is engaged in Operation Lemonade, a wholesale civil- and voting-rights day of action to not just get black Miamians to the polls but to call attention to the undemocratic attempts to keep out their vote.

In the United States, black Americans have lost their jobs, their homes, and their lives in the struggle to gain equal access to the ballot box. Attempts to keep them – or any American, of any political stripe – from their right to choose their leaders give lie to the political compact upon which America was built. If the U.S. is a democratic republic in which citizens can freely vote to elect their leaders, then this Block the Vote drive is un-American. It deserves censure not just from both sides of the aisle, but from supporters of democracy across the globe.

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