The Struggle for Voting Rights and the Poor People’s Campaign

Demonstrators outside the White House hold signs demanding the right to vote and protesting police brutality against civil rights demonstrators in Alabama in March 1965. (Photo: Library of Congress) 

Conversations in Black Freedom Studies (CBFS) is a monthly discussion series held at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Curated by Jeanne Theoharis and Komozi Woodard, the series was established as a space to discuss the latest scholarship in Black freedom studies, bringing the campus and community together as scholars and activists challenge the older geography, leadership, ideology, culture, and chronology of Civil Rights historiography. In anticipation of the planned discussion on The Struggle for Voting Rights and the Poor People’s Campaign, scheduled for Nov. 1st, we are highlighting the scholarship of two of their guests.

Gloria J. Browne-Marshall is an Associate Professor of Constitutional Law at John Jay College of Criminal Justice (CUNY). Her most recent book is, The Voting Rights War: The NAACP and the Ongoing Struggle for Justice. Follow her on Twitter @GBrowneMarshall.

The Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis is Co-Chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival with the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II. Her most recent book, Revive Us Again: Vision and Action in Moral Organizing, is cowritten with Barber and Rev. Dr. Rick Lowery. Follow her on Twitter @LizTheo.

CBFS: Can you tell us about your book and how you came to study and write about the struggle for voting rights and Black Freedom more broadly?

Gloria Browne-Marshall: The Voting Rights War began as a chapter in my book Race, Law, and American Society: 1607 to Present. I expanded it into a book that speaks to the courageous voting rights work of the NAACP and the history of voting oppression. The NAACP was a great catalyst because they have been in this war the longest and have utilized strategies of community protest, litigation in the Supreme Court, and lobbying Congress in such an effective manner that present advocates still use this strategy. This is a war. Voting is political power. I trace the bloody battles over the vote that have been waged for centuries. Oppression of the Black vote has been exceptionally bloody. However, Black voters demonstrated their political power within the first years of the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment granting Black men the right to vote. This triggered voter oppression including murder. The Voting Rights War tells the intertwining story of political power, racial oppression, and the voting rights advocates who fought the battles.

Liz Theoharis: I have spent the last twenty-five years organizing amongst the poor for a movement for racial and economic justice. In that time, rarely a week has gone by when I have been told that our work is futile because, as Jesus once taught, “the poor will be with you always”. In my book, Always with Us?, I argue that an honest reading of Jesus and the bible cannot condone poverty, but must rather compel us to end poverty by restructuring society around the needs of the poor. Across America’s history, this biblical passage and our deepest religious and moral traditions have too-often been hijacked by a religious nationalism that is unconcerned with justice for the least of these.

This was the same religious nationalism that codified and institutionalized Jim Crow in the South and which the Black Freedom struggle battled against. That battle continues, at a time when the Voting Rights Act has been gutted, voter suppression and racialized gerrymandering are rampant (and not just in the South), and the largest potential voting bloc in the country are people not registered, particularly the poor. This is critical when we realize that the attack on our voting rights has smuggled political and religious extremists into office who then turn around and pass sweeping policies that hurt the poor and marginalized, from policy on healthcare, to anti-poverty programs and welfare, the militarization of our communities, and the destruction of our environment.

CBFS: Can you share a story from this history of organizing, for voting rights and beyond, that our readers might not be familiar with?

Browne-Marshall: Most people do not know African-American women voters have always been considered politically powerful, and thus, a threat. They were champion organizers as suffragettes in the 1800s. But, African-American women became particular targets for attack when women gained the right to vote with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. The Voting Rights War contains letters to the NAACP office in New York, from the deep South, detailing threats of lynching when Black women began registering to vote. A letter from Texas is dated within weeks of passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. The writer was told to leave town or be lynched. This message was delivered to him personally by leaders of this town’s business community who were accompanied by the sheriff. The bravery of African-Americans in the face of such treachery is awe-inspiring. They had no recourse in the law. Murder with impunity was a reality. Yet, these brave men and women registered and voted. That’s the power of writing about legal history. When these women and men saw that the law and law enforcement were tools of oppression, then they created a vision and strategies. They acted. That is what I want my readers to receive from The Voting Rights War. I want readers to see the people and struggle behind voting rights cases.

Theoharis: One moment that remains perilously understudied is the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign, the last political project of Rev. Dr. King’s life. The Campaign and its vision emerged out of a long-term conversation amongst organizers who saw the key victories of the Civil Rights Movement and recognized the possibility and necessity of a unified movement of the poor, to force deep structural and systemic change. The emergence of 1968 Campaign represented the latent power of poor and dispossessed people across the country and has served as the inspiration for today’s Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. Today’s campaign is intent on building a powerful movement of the poor and is organized around the interlocking evils of systemic racism, poverty, militarism and the war economy, ecological devastation and the distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism. We believe that only a mass movement can break through and galvanize the kind of moral revolution of values that Dr. King was a part of organizing at the time of his assassination.

CBFS: Given the continuing struggles for racial justice today, how does this history help us understand or act in our current moment?

Browne-Marshall: Racial injustice has been, and will be, one aspect of American life. However, this nation can do better than to succumb to its most base racial instincts. History has demonstrated that there have been times when race relations were at a nadir and eras of racial enlightenment. The advocates of justice I write about in The Voting Rights War are tenacious despite the dangers and tide of the times. They want, work for, and expect freedom, full citizenship, and political power. Today, we must defend the progress they fought for over a century to create. We have the opportunity to show ourselves at least as brave in this period of racial animus. History has given us the strategy: Litigation. Legislation. Protest. The Voting Rights War is clear in this message—Freedom is not free.

Theoharis: It is through our study of the movements and conditions of the past that we are able to recognize that our current political crises are the consequence of profound structural and systemic inequality. The many leaders of the Poor People’s Campaign across the country understand that it is not enough to resist against one politician or one political party in this moment, but that we must build a movement strong enough to shake the hardened foundations of this nation. This comes from our reckoning with history and from the lived realities of our communities today. At the onset of the 1968 Campaign, Dr. King said, “the dispossessed of this nation—the poor, both white and Negro—live in a cruelly unjust society. They must organize a revolution against injustice…against the structures through which society is refusing to take means which have been called for, and which are at hand, to lift the load of poverty…if they can be helped to take action together, they will do so with a freedom and a power that will be a new an unsettling force in our complacent national life.” Fifty years later, these words continue to serve as both a profound analysis of our time and an urgent rallying cry. To honor the lives of our forbearers and the lives of our loved ones today, we must heed the call.

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