Baltimore's Black Leaders Recall The Past In Modern Protests

BALTIMORE, Md. (AP) — The pride was evident in Kim Randall’s voice as she described the police officer handing her a citation.

“My grandmother should be proud of me,” said Randall, 52, a Baltimore hotel worker who donned a bright-red, “Voting Rights Now!” T-shirt in August and — along with a few hundred others — crowded onto Washington’s Constitution Avenue to urge Senate passage of legislation combating state-level voting restrictions they believe target Black voters.

The officer slipped a color-coded band around one of Randall’s wrists to indicate her arrest on a misdemeanor obstruction charge, and she waved her other hand at the crowd as she was escorted off the street.

“Before we let this fail, we will spend time in jail,” the demonstrators chanted.

Randall, like many Black activists — including former Maryland gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous, who was arrested Tuesday at a similar demonstration at the White House — considers voting rights a transcendent, and, in many ways, personal, struggle. At the rally, Jealous invoked the memory of his father, who was jailed during civil rights protests in Baltimore more than a half-century ago. The younger Jealous dropped to his knees to be arrested along with others after urging passage of federal voting rights safeguards.

“The tactics that they are using — state-level voter suppression laws — are the same tactics that they used at the start of Jim Crow,” Jealous said.

Randall, too, said she feels connected to an earlier era of civil rights battles that included the perilous 1965 Selma to Montgomery, Alabama marches, one of which resulted in billy club and tear gas attacks by police.

“I look at my grandchildren and I’m like, ‘I can’t believe we’re still doing this,’” said Randall, a communications dispatcher at the downtown Hilton hotel and board member of the Unite Here Local 7 union.

The Aug. 3 rally, where the Revs. Jesse L. Jackson and William J. Barber II also were arrested, was nonviolent.

Senators have been negotiating details of the Freedom to Vote Act — a compromise between Democratic progressives and centrists — focused on protecting access to ballots following legislatures in Florida, Texas, Georgia, Iowa and other states enacting stricter voting requirements. Supporters say the states’ moves, including limiting the use of ballot drop boxes, scaling back early voting and adding ID requirements to get mail-in ballots, will protect elections from fraud. But voting rights advocates call them voter suppression.

In Maryland, the Democratic-controlled General Assembly went the other direction, approving changes last winter — such as allowing people to opt in to a permanent vote-by-mail list — to make voting easier

To Baltimore Rep. Kweisi Mfume, 72, who headed the NAACP from 1996 to 2004, the other states’ laws feel like “a bitter return to the days when there was outright suppression of votes” through literacy tests, poll taxes and other means.

“It conjures up the things that one remembers from that era — the dogs being put on people, the hoses, billy clubs, the arrests, the demonstrations and the blatant Jim Crow that had been around for 100 years,” said Mfume, a Democrat who was elected to the first of two House stints in 1986, the same year as the late civil rights icon John Lewis, for whom a second voting protection bill is named.

Neither measure has the support of Senate Republicans, who say the bills amount to federal overreach.

“No amount of repackaging or relabeling will let Democrats sneak through big pieces of the sweeping, partisan, federal takeover of our nation’s elections that they have wanted to pass since they took power,” Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said last month.

Democrats lack the 60 votes to overcome expected GOP filibusters that would prevent the bills from being voted on. Voting rights groups have been lobbying Democrats, particularly West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, to reform or abolish the filibuster. Manchin, a co-sponsor of the Freedom to Vote Act, opposes changing the procedural rules.

Tuesday’s White House protest was meant to lobby President Joe Biden to pressure senators to at least temporarily “get the filibuster out of the way,” said Jealous, president of People For the American Way, an advocacy group, and also a past NAACP president. The crowd sang “We Shall not be Moved” and other protest songs.

Democratic Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin — along with fellow Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen — has long been pushing for the bill named for Lewis that would restore and modernize the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Supreme Court struck down a key section of the act in 2013 that had prevented some states from tinkering with election requirements without federal approval.

Without federal voting protections, Democrats fear Republicans could tip the balance of power in Congress to the GOP in the 2022 midterm elections.

“I’m of the Dr. Martin Luther King belief that we have detours on the way to progress, but we will make progress,” Cardin said. “Will it happen in time for the midterm elections? I’m not clear. It’s a longshot at this particular moment.”

In April, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott and Orioles Chairman and CEO John Angelos joined the voting rights debate by issuing a joint statement supporting Major League Baseball’s decision to remove the 2021 All-Star Game from the Atlanta Braves’ ballpark in Georgia after that state passed laws critics say are aimed at suppressing votes.

Scott tweeted: “Here in Baltimore we strongly support voting rights, as do our beloved (Orioles).”

Mfume said he feels frustration and sadness — but not shock — to again be fighting voting restrictions that he says must feel like “relics” to younger generations. He said he is resigned to such barriers being erected “as long as people walk around with this built-in paranoia and fear that they are somehow going to lose something if others gain.”

Before his 2019 death, Baltimore Rep. Elijah Cummings began looking into whether some states sought to suppress the votes of racial minorities and the poor in the 2018 congressional elections. The Democrat was then chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

The pace of restrictive state voting laws accelerated after former President Donald Trump, a Republican, said without evidence that there was rampant voter fraud during the 2020 election won by Biden.

Cummings often shared a story of a promise his 92-year-old mother asked of him on her deathbed.

His mother “was gravely ill,” recalled Harry Spikes, the congressman’s longtime district director. “He was told if he was going to see her, now was the time. He goes to see her and she was mumbling ‘vote’ and he said ‘What are you saying?’ And she said, ‘Don’t let them take voting away from us.’ He said he immediately started crying,” said Spikes, 39, now executive director of Bon Secours Community Works in Baltimore.

“If he were here, just knowing his personality he would not stop talking about that,” Spikes said.

Jealous said at Tuesday’s demonstration that he was prepared to spend the night in jail. It was uncertain Tuesday afternoon whether that would happen, said a People for the American Way spokesperson.

Randall, who paid a $50 fine and did not serve jail time after her arrest, said her now-deceased grandmother educated her long ago about civil rights. Some of the chants and songs from the August rally, such as “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ’Round,” have deep roots in the movement.

“My ancestors made some progress,” Randall said. “We’ve got to continue on with this fight.”