Organizers from AL, LA, NC gather near nation’s capitol in solidarity for equitable representation and voting rights; plaintiffs react to oral arguments

Alabama grassroots organizers were joined by advocates and college students from HBCUs across the South in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, Oct. 4, for the Power On The Line Democracy Day rally to raise awareness around unfair mapping practices and attacks on voting rights the day of the Milligan v. Merrill Supreme Court oral arguments.

Alabama Values Executive Director Anneshia Hardy served as the host for the day.

“It was inspiring to see people come together from across the South to stand in solidarity with Alabama in our fight for fair maps and voting rights. It was a moment of collective support and action,” she said. “There is power in the collective and we must unite and fight for freedom and democracy.”

Event attendees gathered at Taft Memorial Park and Eaton DC for the rally in which eventgoers chanted, and heard from organizers and others in the crowd as they stood in solidarity with the plaintiffs in the Milligan v. Merrill case.

“A lot of times when plaintiffs sign up for these sorts of cases, it’s really about going and being in support of whatever the attorneys are saying,” Evan Milligan, the lead plaintiff in the Milligan case and executive director of Alabama Forward, said. “We thought it was important as organizers that we really work with our allies on the ground across the country to talk about the Voting Rights Act to democracy as a whole.”

Milligan said the VRA emerged from Bloody Sunday and the back-breaking work that came out of the Black Belt in Alabama and those who attended the events in Washington, D.C., were standing together to defend the VRA.

The 2020 Census showed that Alabama was more diverse than ever, but Black voters saw their votes being diluted with the Congressional maps drawn by the Alabama Legislature in November 2021.

Milligan said that not having the ability to elect candidates of choice limits young leaders’ abilities to reach their fullest potential.

Milligan said that the overall goal is “one demand, two options.”

“The one demand is permanent voting rights protections for all Americans,” he said. “Option one is to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act or option two is a 28th Amendment that guarantees what the VRA does without the need for reauthorization.”

Martina Allen, youth community organizer at Deep Center, spoke next.

“As change agents, we are on the frontlines in protecting young people,” she said.

Allen spoke about how they teach young people about participating in democracy.

“We always start with voting,” she said. “Voting is more than a privilege; it’s a right. We do not want elected leaders who continue to encourage young people to vote when their intention is to make their votes count less. It is important for us to protect the Voting Rights Act.”

Kelyse Adams of DC Votes and Long Live GoGo, is on the ground working for D.C. Statehood.

Adams spoke about how America is the only country in the world where residents of the capital city do not have representation.

“I stand before you today representing the over 700,000 residents who do not have a voice in our nation’s Congress,” she said.

Adams talked about how gentrification is pushing out Black and brown residents from the city.

“There is a political and cultural displacement,” she said. “If we can’t change their mind, we need to get together and change their seats.”

Gino Nuzilillo, a communication advocate for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said the South has become not only a personal home but a political home for him.

“These attacks (on voting rights) are not just in Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia, but in North and South Carolina as well,” he said. “As we like to say, ‘as goes the South, goes the nation.’”

Nuzilillo spoke about another attack on democracy – Moore v. Harper.

Moore v. Harper and Milligan v. Merrill both seek to attack democracy and are attacks on communities of color, Nuzilillo said.

“The stakes of the cases couldn’t be higher,” he said.

Ashley Shelton, executive director for Power Coalition for Equity and Justice, said what’s important for Louisiana is that most of the redistricting cases are held together by Section 2, including the Alabama and Louisiana cases.

“We are proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with Alabama and North Carolina,” she said. “We have hope that we will be one true democracy and that Black and Brown people will not live as second-class citizens.”

Shelton said she would not make her peace with being a second-class citizen and that having to rebuild the voting rights act after being gutted feels like another 20 years of work.

“We need to live up to what we say we are on paper,” she said. “Every right I have as a black woman was given to me by the court. We will be standing and holding the line.”

Chris McDonald of Montgomery, Alabama traveled to D.C. for the rally.

“It’s our vote,” he said. “If we don’t act now, we won’t have nothing.”

McDonald said he is a young black man from Montgomery who has been dealing with hard things.

“As people, we are all one,” he said. “Our vote matters. We need to have that count. We are at war. Our power is to reach out to all our people to tell them to vote. We got kids. We got family members who are yearning for rights.”

Trinity Alexander from Dillard University made the journey to Washington, D.C., on a bus provided by the Power Coalition. The Power Coalition sponsored buses for students from Lousiana’s HBCUs and organizers to attend the Power on the Line Democracy Day.

“We are here for the fight. We are here for justice. We are here for black voting,” she said. “I would like to say thank you to the people who are not from the African American community who are here helping us. We can’t do it without you.”

Alexander said she is from New Orleans and has watched her family and those around her struggle, but she doesn’t want that for her future children.

During the rally, Capitol Police stopped organizers from using their microphones claiming a permit issue, even though that had been approved prior to the event. Eventually, they said the permit was approved but only after the event had moved to another venue, Eaton DC.

Lynn Seaton with the National LGBTQ Task Force said her organization is in support of the Milligan case.

She told college students that their voices are important.

“We will not stand for the dilution of the black, brown or LGBTQ or people with disabilities vote,” she said.

Seaton said any elected official who does not make voting rights for all important are not doing their duty.

Kynesha Brown of Rollin’ To The Polls said everyone is here  at a crucial time and that everyone is  frustrated that Black and Brown communities are still dealing with the fight for voting rights in 2022.

“We are going to continue fighting for it,” she said.

Emily Ingram from Friends of the West End and Alabama Black Women’s Roundtable said that Black folks are warriors.

“They must know the power we hold if we are still fighting in 2022,” she said. “This case is intergenerational. We are laying the pathway for you guys. It encompasses everyone.

Jamal Watkins, senior vice president of strategy and advancement at the NAACP, called it a sad day in America to have to stand in the cold and fight for access to the ballot box.

“It is a sad day when we have to stand across from the Capitol,” he said. “The (state) table work that happens from state to state is crucial. Racial equity is not a new thing. Black and Brown people have been demonized. In the state of Mississippi people are fighting for basic water.”

Watkins said that power at the ballot box is about speaking truth to power.

Alexis Anderson-Reed, CEO of State Voices, said voting is one of the ways for liberation.

She said lawmakers are making it harder every day with more than 580 bills coming forward to make it more difficult for minority voters to cast ballots.

In the afternoon portion of the rally, held at Eaton DC, Southern Poverty Law Center President Margaret Haung, said Oct. 4 was an important day for her to be with everyone.

“Today the Supreme Court holds the future. Our future is in its hands. What is at stake today? The Voting Rights Act,” she said.

Haung spoke about how Alabama is once again at the center of the Civil Rights Movement as anti-voter politicians have weaponized redistricting to deny black voters equitable representation.

Congresswoman Terri Sewell spoke next.

“John Lewis said that the vote is precious, that it is almost sacred,”she said. “Twenty-seven percent of Alabama is black people, yet I hold the only district in Alabama that represents black people. Everyone knows the VRA was the most consequential civil rights legislation.

It changed the faces of who is elected in government throughout.”

Sewell said she is the lone representative from Alabama fighting for issues and bills that directly impact the lives of Black Alabamians. She gave examples that she was the only representative from Alabama to vote for the American Rescue Plan Act and the infrastructure bill.

Scott Douglas of Greater Birmingham Ministries said, “I come from a people who were stolen from their land that was stolen from our people. We are here to stop the theft of our overdue representation.”

Douglas said, “One obstacle is the nemesis that is the presence of white supremacy and white male patriarchy.”

White supremacy is ingrained in Alabama’s Constitution and has been a fight that Black and brown communities have had to fight for years.

“What we have to eliminate now is white supremacy. It is a stage for sickness for democracy,” Douglas said.

Benard Simelton of the Alabama NAACP encouraged those in attendance to get fired up for the election coming on November 8.

Simelton said it is important to register everyone to vote that you know.

“We cannot stay home or let our neighbors stay home,” he said. “We have to become our brother’s keeper.”

To end the day, plaintiffs in Milligan v. Merrill shared their thoughts after the oral arguments.

Milligan said one thing of note was that Justice Clarence Thomas is not known for asking questions but was the first one to ask a question to the state of Alabama.

“With these arguments, you read in tea leaves to see where (SCOTUS) are going with it,” he said. “The state of Alabama seemed to come for the VRA.”

Milligan said it seemed that the state’s arguments were all over the place and that was confirmed through questions asked by Supreme Court justices – both conservative and liberal.

Shalela Dowdy, who is also a plaintiff, said that the state’s attorney Edmund LaCour had shown weakness in his arguments in January before the three-judge panel and showed the same weakness in his arguments before SCOTUS.

“The state didn’t come with that fire we thought they should have,” she said. “They weren’t confident and the justices asked for a lot of clarity. So, I’m hopeful.”

Plaintiff Letetia Jackson said she was a little surprised that the state’s case wasn’t as tight as they expected it to be.

“Our sister Justice Ketanji (Brown-Jackson) took them to school,” Jackson said. “She taught them what the Constitution is and what it says and what it means and why they put the 14th Amendment in the Constitution. I was struck by the fact that they didn’t have a lot of questions for our counsel after they grilled the state’s attorney. This case isn’t a difficult case. It’s really a slam dunk. I’m very, very hopeful. Very, very hopeful.”

Plaintiff Khadidah Stone agreed that Justice Jackson’s presence was helpful.

“She was able to conceptualize the 14th Amendment,” Stone said. “I don’t think that would have happened if she wasn’t in the room. Black representation is important.”

Simelton, who represents the Alabama NAACP, who is also a plaintiff, said, “A reasonable justice will look at the facts and arguments as presented and will have to draw the conclusion that the maps do not give Blacks the representation on the issues that are near and dear to them.”

Douglas, who represents Greater Birmingham Ministries, who is also a plaintiff, said, “John Merrill’s group brags on access to voting rights.”

However, mobile units went out to rural areas, but they parked in front of the library and then outside a courthouse, both places where they can already register to vote, Douglas said.

The SCOTUS decision is expected to come in late spring or early summer 2023.