Khalil Abdullah | Ethnic Media Services
WASHINGTON, DC — Shortly ahead of arguing before the Supreme Court on a voting rights lawsuit that bears his name, Alabama attorney Evan Milligan was already looking forward to what needs to be done to secure permanent voting rights protections for all Americans.
“My hope is not based on the court,” Milligan said at a recent news conference. “My hope is based on the agency of my people and our allies.”
Invoking the 1964 Montgomery bus boycott driven by ordinary people who’d simply made up their minds to end racial segregation, Milligan said, “If we make up our minds, there’s a nonviolent path away from this momentum towards going off the edge that we feel building around us.”
For Milligan, the options are either a 28th Amendment to the constitution that will secure voting as a constitutional right, and/or passage of the John L. Lewis Voting Rights Act which would restore portions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA) recently struck down by the Supreme Court.
Driving home Milligan’s point, civil rights activists, supporters and college students — many of whom bused from Alabama and Louisiana to Washington — gathered at a nearby park the day of the hearing. Bracing against an unseasonably cold day with intermittent showers courtesy of Hurricane Ian, speakers encouraged attendees to persist in their quest for fairness and equity.
The rally was held under the banner Power on the Line, a social justice advocacy organization tied to the Merrill v. Milligan hearing.
“It is a sad day when we have to stand across from the Capitol to actually ask for and demand the right to the ballot box,” said Jamaal Watkins, the NAACP’s Senior VP for Strategy and Advancement.
At issue in Merrill v. Milligan is the right of African Americans in Alabama, who now comprise 27 percent of the state’s population, to have a second congressional district drawn under proportional representation guidelines based on 2020 census data. Alabama currently has seven congressional districts.
Rep. Terri Sewell, D-AL, holds that Seventh congressional district seat for Alabama’s Black Belt population. “It’s simply not fair,” she said of her state’s legislative map which limits her burgeoning constituent populace to one seat. Sewell said she supports a full restoration of the VRA and called for the U.S. Senate “to do its job” and pass voting rights legislation that has been languishing for years.
Attorney Deuel Ross, NAACP Legal Defense Fund, echoed Sewell. “We fear that Alabama’s congressional districts crack the Black Belt, which is an important Black community in Alabama that has been discriminated against for as long as there’s been an Alabama,” Deuel said.
“Packing” is drawing a congressional map in such a way that it concentrates a population into a single district while scattering other residents into neighboring districts where, as minorities, their vote is numerically reduced or “cracked” from electing a candidate of their choice.
“We stand here holding a spot in history today that sadly has to repeat itself over and over and over again,” exclaimed Ronald James, Jr., an Alabama organizer for Black Voters Matter, who denounced what he sees as the continuing indifference by the country and the court to rights of minority communities.
James, who was accompanied on the trip from Alabama to Capitol Hill and the Supreme Court by his father and sister, exhorted the crowd in a boisterous chant: “Ain’t no struggle like the struggle of the people because the struggle of the people don’t stop.”
Melanie Campbell, president and CEO, National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, and the convener of the Black Women’s Roundtable, reserved a pointed observation for the youth in attendance about their potential impact in the upcoming midterm elections and the 2024 presidential election.
“Because if you show up like you did — I’m talking to the young folks — if you show up like you did in 2018, all bets are off. So let’s get this done y’all!”
Heaven Boudy, a native New Orleanian, said, “I am here to protect my rights and make sure our voices are heard — and we demand fair maps.” She said her parents were excited that she was attending the rally.
Elijah Crawford, born in Portland, Oregon and now living in Baton Rouge after just having graduated from Southern University as a political science major said he was inspired by working with Power on the Line coalition members and is considering law school to pursue a career as a lobbyist or crafting legislation.
Boudy and Crawford accompanied a delegation from Louisiana headed by the founder, president and CEO of Power Coalition for Equity and Justice, Ashley Shelton.
Washington, D.C. residents also made an appearance at the rally. Sydney Alexander is a grassroots activist and a member of the D.C.-based organization Harriett’s Wildest Dreams. “That’s Harriett as in Tubman,” exclaimed Alexander and Luci Murphy, the latter a longtime social justice activist.
Speaking of the rally, Alexander said, “This is about voting rights, and that’s serious, and a lot of people fought and died for us to be able to vote.” She said she is going to be vigilant in opposing attempts to constrict that right. “I’m not going to continue to live in a world where this is happening.”
The court’s decision will likely be announced in the spring of 2023.
“Between now and then,” Milligan said, “we will be continuing what we’re doing – going to people throughout Alabama to talk about the importance of voting, the importance of the Voting Rights Act and, really, just democracy as a whole.”
Additional reporting by Howard University journalism major Jason Ponterotto.