Commentary

The startling finding of the 2000 census that by 2060 there would be no majority race in America sent shock waves through the country, terrifying many white Americans. It also set in motion bold efforts to diminish the growing political power of African-American citizens. Among these were the census undercount, gerrymandering to dilute heavily black voting areas, and voter suppression. Today, at least 33 states have intentionally erected barriers to voting by enacting voter suppression laws. These laws include such deliberate actions as:

  • Reducing the number of voter registration days,
  • Removing voting precincts from inner-city churches to remote locations with limited public transportation, and
  • Cutting early voting days, including Sunday voting.

The right to vote in America is one of the most priceless benefits of citizenship. Laws and policies aimed at suppressing the vote of African Americans and other vulnerable citizens is an attack on their very rights as citizens as free persons in a democracy. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke profoundly of the power of the vote when he said,

"So long as I do not firmly and irrevocably possess the right to vote, I do not possess myself. I cannot make up my mind. It is made up for me. I cannot live as a democratic citizen observing the laws I have helped to enact. I can only submit to the edict of others."

Protecting the precious right to vote as a core value of American citizenship is the reason why Skinner Leadership Institute has joined Sojourners in the Lawyers and Collars program of voter protection and engagement. The purpose of the Lawyers and Collars program is to equip and empower pastors and local church leaders in sacred garb to work alongside lawyers to protect vulnerable citizens in voting precincts. Together, they will provide a combined legal and moral presence against voter suppression, intimidation, and harassment expected to rise in the 2018 midterm elections.

Our faith teaches us that all people are created in the image of God. Protecting the right to vote affirms the divine imprint and inherent value of all of God's children. Nothing diminishes the rule of law and our precious democracy more than voter suppression and efforts to marginalize and reduce the power of vulnerable voters.

I grew up in the Oakland/Richmond Bay Area section of Northern California in the 1960s. While a student at San Francisco State University, I participated in the West Coast version of the civil rights movement when we boycotted the Bank of America for refusing to hire African Americans. Students in the south were participating in the Freedom Rides, and in the 1964 Freedom Summer campaign, were added inspiration for me as a budding social activist. In that campaign, black and white students across the nation descended on Mississippi and supported a massive voter registration outreach in a state where three young civil rights workers — Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner — were murdered. This brutal assault on voting rights woke me up the immeasurable value of the right to vote as an essential tool in the battle against racial discrimination. I vowed then that I would devote my life to protecting the right to vote for any American facing voter suppression.

The church is called by God to protect and uplift the poor, the oppressed, and the vulnerable. More than 2,000 Scriptures clearly state God’s preferential concern for the voiceless and locked out in society. Isaiah 10:1-2 reminds the church of its divine mission to defend the poor against unjust laws, saying,

What sorrow awaits the unjust judges and those who issue unfair laws. They deprive the poor of justice and deny the rights of the needy among my people. They prey on widows and take advantage of orphans. (NLT)

Nowhere have the rights of underserved Americans been trampled on more than in the denial or suppression of voting rights. In defending African Americans, Latino Americans, the elderly, and students whose voting rights have curtailed, the church is courageously “standing in the gap” in obedience to God’s word.

One of the most potent elements of the Lawyers and Collars program is the "We Are Watching" meetings with secretaries of state in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Clergy leaders in these selected states will remind elected officials that Lawyers and Collars will be monitoring the election process from start to finish to ensure every citizen can exercise their right to vote. The program will also provide state-level gatherings and voter protection training sessions during this period of the campaign.

Other empowering and vital aspects of Lawyers and Collars are the in-depth tools and resources available to help pastors, clergy, and church leaders to educate and protection of our most vulnerable citizens at polling stations on Election Day. The Lawyers and Collars toolkit, available through the Lawyers and Collars website, is one such tool. Between now and the election, there will be a robust menu of election protection training for faith communities.

  • In September, we will host a Lawyers and Collars voter protection webinar with "Know Your Rights" training and clarify what's at stake for vulnerable communities in the November election. RSVP for the webinar here.
  • In October, Lawyers and Collars will equip faith leaders and pastors to host Nov. 4 “Turnout Sunday” services and voter readiness planning.
  • In November, clergy will be assigned to work on Election Day alongside voter protection lawyers in precincts of some of the most vulnerable voters in Lawyers and Collars states.

The Lawyers and Collars team recommends a few critical steps every faith leader can take:

  1. Make sure all your members are registered to vote.
  2. Educate your house of worship about updated voter identification laws, polling places, dates, and rights.
  3. Preach and teach the importance of voting as a core part of discipleship and advancing justice in your house of worship.
  4. Recruit clergy and church leaders to spend Election Day at the polls supporting and assisting voters working alongside lawyers. Where possible, churches should help people with transportation to the polls.

In launching the Lawyers and Collar Program, Skinner Leadership Institute and Sojourners urge pastors and clergy leaders to join us in protecting the right to vote, a fundamental right of citizenship.

Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner is President of Skinner Leadership Institute, Co-Convener, National African American Clergy Network, and author of I Prayed, Now What?

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