Black churches and the struggle for voting rights in Georgia
After Georgia’s new political maps were passed in 2021, thousands of Black voters were impacted across Georgia. Districts were strategically packed and cracked in ways that diluted the power of the Black vote. Despite accounting for most of the population growth, Black Georgians had a disproportionate chance of electing who they want.
Bishop Reginald T. Jackson knew that many of his congregants were impacted by the redistricting. As leader of the Sixth Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, he oversees over 500 Black churches across Georgia. He felt like it was his responsibility as a Christian to contest the changes that were later found to be unconstitutional.
The bishop decided to take legal action. The 6th District of the AME Church joined forces with two other parties to form an interesting group of plaintiffs — Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. and four individuals.
By this point, Jackson was familiar with the judge presiding over the case. He had already testified multiple times in other legal cases. Throughout his tenure as the bishop, he’s been active in the secular sphere of voting rights.
“When I was assigned as the bishop of Georgia in 2016, I was stunned and I was angry because the Black turnout in the 2016 election had been very low,” Jackson says.
That election, Black turnout in the U.S. sharply declined to 59.6% — the first decline in 20 years.
Then, in 2017, 560,000 registered voters were erased from voter rolls by then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp — 107,000 of those people were removed because they were deemed “inactive” having not voted in any elections over seven years.
In the 2018 election, Stacey Abrams narrowly lost the race for governor to Kemp. It was a moment that reenergized Jackson and other faith leaders to get involved in voter mobilization.
“That made us absolutely determined that we would do all that they could to get out our vote, because a lot of those who had their names withdrawn happen to be people of color, members of our denominations, and members of our community,” he says.
Various voter mobilization efforts helped contribute to record turnout in the 2020 election. But months later, the Georgia legislature passed S.B. 202, a voting law that restricted some of the practices that Black churches used to help their congregants vote.
“They really did a hatchet job on absentee voting and on ballot drop boxes,” Jackson says. “And so we went to court because we thought that was an infringement and an effort that make it harder to vote.”
Jackson’s efforts are part of a larger legacy of Black churches in Georgia striving for Black people to have full participation in this democracy. Black churches and faith leaders have been integral in the advancements made on this front and still lead this struggle today.
“If you check the history of Blacks and the Black church in this country, you will discover that nothing, absolutely nothing for the advancement of Blacks in the United States occurred without the leadership and participation of the Black church,” Jackson said.
The century-long path to voting rights
The first Black churches built in America were born out of inequality. First constructed during times of slavery, faith was tied to the struggle for freedom that persisted even after emancipation.
When Black men first gained the right to vote in 1870, participation in the democracy became a new means to achieve freedom. Black churches were having a social and political impact — it’s where political discussions were held. And some of the first Black people to hold office were ministers.
“It makes sense that the Black Christian tradition and Black faith and Black churches continue to be a reminder of how we get free, but also how we stay free.”Darrin Sims, minister and program director with the National Center for Civil and Human Rights
But these gains were effectively stamped out when Reconstruction efforts ended in 1877 with the introduction of measures like poll taxes and literacy tests. And churches — the only places where Black people had full autonomy and control — became easy targets for racial violence.
Still, the Black church was responsible for meeting the needs of Atlanta’s large, newly emancipated population.
“And while white leaders were able to exercise what I would call dominance during most of the 19th century, the Black church was very, very influential within a segregated Black community,” says Harvey Newman, professor emeritus of public policy at Georgia State University.
A pivotal moment came at the turn of the century. In the wake of the 1906 Atlanta Race Massacre, white and Black clergy members met to discuss their mutual concerns. Harvey says it set a precedent for clergy members facilitating mediation and cooperation across racial lines in Atlanta. And, it’s the reason why Atlanta schools were desegregated relatively peacefully compared to other cities in the South.
Registering voters became a priority for Black church leaders in the 1940s. A massive voter registration drive led to the desegregation of Atlanta’s police force in 1948. Mayor William Hartsfield fulfilled a campaign promise to finally hire Black officers if a certain number of voters were registered.
“There was not another southern city that had that kind of behind-the-scenes negotiation that’s been part of the moderate leadership here in the city’s religious communities. That’s been going on for decades,” Newman says.
As the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum, its emerging leaders in Atlanta were preachers. William Holmes Borders, Ralph David Abernathy, Andrew Young, C.T. Vivan, Joseph E. Lowery, Martin Luther King Sr. and Jr., and a young John Lewis — to name a few.
The progression of the movement was dependent on the Black church. It was critical in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. When the movement came to an end, Harvey says there was a new focus on getting Black voters to actually turn out. And, to elect Black leaders.
“The influence shifted away from purely desegregation objectives like SCLC had, as King encouraged people like [Andrew] Young to get involved in politics, because that was the next frontier,” he says.
In 1972, Andrew Young became the first Black Congressman elected in the Deep South since Reconstruction. In 1974, Atlanta elected Maynard Jackson to be its first Black mayor.
“It was largely through the Black church and Black leadership in this city and the political sophistication that they had developed by that time that helped mobilize registered voters and mobilize them to vote,” Newman says.
Bridging the gap
The Black church as an institution had built a reputation for being able to mobilize voters. Churches became regular campaign stops for candidates seeking office, despite them being unable to formally endorse a candidate. But, candidates still sought out endorsements from groups such as the Concerned Black Clergy.
“They know the power of the Black churches, they know the authority that comes from that pulpit, they know the reverence of the space of the Black church, and they understand it,” says Darrin Sims, a minister and a program director with the National Center for Civil and Human Rights.
Sims says that Black churches bridge the gap between Black people and the government, in terms of how to be involved in the political process. Churches are a trusted source for information on processes like absentee voting and drop boxes.
Voter mobilization has remained a goal for Black churches during election season. There’s a number of strategies: “Souls to the Polls” events, training poll chaplains, various initiatives by ministerial staff, supporting seniors and young voters and collaborating with non-profits dedicated to voting rights. And churches with a large online presence use it to their advantage.
“There’s something for everybody,” Sims says. “Some churches, they really focus on voter education, some focus on voter registration, some people get tapped in around voter transportation. There are different levels.”
He adds that all this activity is part of the Black Christian tradition of serving with a “lens of freedom.” He has seen more Black ministers preach this message and use voting as a tool to create a better world.
Fighting for the future of voting rights
When the ACLU of Georgia was looking for plaintiffs to represent its claims that Georgia’s political maps diluted the power of the Black vote, AME Church was a perfect fit. As the leader, Bishop Jackson is standing on over a century of efforts to advance the voting rights and participation of Black people.
“For us, it’s not the politics, it’s the democracy … and as Black Americans, we have been constantly, our entire existence in America and the state, has been a battle for full participation in this democracy,” says Andrea Young, the executive director of ACLU Georgia.
In recent years, the Voting Rights Act has been stripped down.
A major change came in the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision, which removed federal preclearance requirements for states’ voting changes. A 2021 ruling paved the way for new voting restrictions. A more recent ruling said that private individuals and groups in the Midwest and Great Plains regions can’t challenge Section 2 of the VRA — which is what occurred in the ACLU’s successful redistricting case.
Congress’ failure to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and Georgia’s S.B. 202 are more examples of what Young says is an assault on the progress made toward full equality and citizenship for Black Georgians.
Although she’s driven to continue the work, she feels despair that she’s fighting the same fight that her father, Andrew Young, was fighting over 50 years ago.
“We keep fighting, but it’s very disappointing, it’s very hard to understand this resistance and this opposition to full democratic participation by Black Georgians,” Young says.
Where grassroots voter mobilization impacts individuals directly, statewide litigation impacts the legislature and the outcome of elections. Both are efforts in the never-ending goal to strengthen democracy in Georgia, and to affirmatively answer this question: Are Black voters able to elect people who represent their priorities?