The article was originally published in YES! Magazine
When three Black Congressional leaders were handcuffed and arrested recently while protesting voter suppression, they were doing more than drawing attention to legislation to protect and expand voting rights. They were taking a stand against an anti-democratic movement, led by Republican-controlled state legislatures, to keep away from the polls voters whose beliefs and interests don’t align with theirs.
That entire movement has been built on the foundation of not just one big lie, but several. It is fueled by the White identity politics that is at the heart of Trumpism and that has shaped much of U.S. political history.
Ohio U.S. Rep. Joyce Beatty, the Democratic chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, was arrested while protesting with a group of voting rights activists inside the Hart Senate Office Building. Senate Republicans have blocked legislation to protect voting rights and expand voter access.
“The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act is our No. 1 issue,” Beatty said in an interview with Elle magazine. “And as a Black woman, it was important for me to do more than just say this is our issue. Think about the power of one. One person can make a difference. Rosa Parks did it. Martin Luther King Jr. did it. Fannie Lou Hamer did. Harriet Tubman did it. So why not Joyce Beatty?”
Both the Lewis Act (H.R. 4) and the For the People Act (H.R. 1) have passed the House. Under H.R. 1, Americans would be automatically registered to vote when they apply for state services. States would also be required to allow voters to register online. H.R. 1 also contains provisions to provide early voting for all federal elections and to provide greater access to polling places.
H.R. 4 would amend the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and restore the authority under the act for determining which states must pre-clear election law changes with the Department of Justice. It would also require pre-clearance of known discriminatory practices, including the creation of at-large districts, inadequate multilingual voting materials, and cuts to the number of polling places or hours of operation.
Both bills have stalled because of a Republican filibuster in the Senate.
Beatty and the other protesters were at the Hart Building across the street from the Capitol to speak out against voter suppression and to demand Senate passage of those bills. They expressed their views, were singing in the Senate building’s lobby, and were then arrested after being warned that they couldn’t do that there.
“At the Jan. 6 insurrection, you had thousands of people damaging federal property, rushing and breaking down doors,” Beatty said in the Elle interview. “People were dying. There was nothing peaceful about it. And look what happened. That day there were no arrests, no handcuffs, no police wagons. But this is just another reason why we have to speak up. This was all the more reason for me to fight for justice, including being arrested, if necessary.”
Beatty’s arrest was followed just days later by the arrest of U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, a Georgia Democrat, along with a group of Black male activists also protesting against Senate inaction on voting rights legislation and filibuster reform. In a statement released on Johnson’s social media platforms, his office said the protest “was also in response to voter suppression bills and laws throughout the country, including Georgia, that target students, the elderly, and people of color.”
The statement from Johnson’s office invoked the legacy of the late Congressman John Lewis, saying “Rep. Johnson was getting in ‘good trouble’ fighting for and protecting civil and voting rights for all Americans.”
Days later, Democratic U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas was arrested during a protest. She also said she joined to protest to object to inaction on the legislation to protect voting rights and expand voter access.
“Any action that is a peaceful action of civil disobedience is worthy and more, to push all of us to do better,” Jackson said of her arrest in a video later posted on her social media platforms.
Coming at a time when political leaders and others were observing the one-year anniversary of Lewis’s death, the arrests highlighted the stakes that Black voters face as many Republican-led states enact measures to suppress voting.
Those efforts are often justified by one of the oft-repeated big lies that define the campaigns, presidency, post-presidency, and character of Donald Trump. He proclaimed, and many of his voters believe, that voter fraud influenced the outcome of the 2020 election in favor of the Biden/Harris ticket. A Republican who will call out that lie is now one of the rarest species in American politics.
Voters and politicians who swear their allegiance to Trump also swear their allegiance to this lie. They are not about to be swayed by seeing it refuted by recounts and dozens of court rulings. They are fully convinced that U.S. elections are rigged to elect Democrats, particularly Democratic presidents. Many believe this because Trump said so.
But the big lie in this particular case isn’t unique. It’s similar in character to other lies that have served to reinforce White supremacy. Many of these millions of Trump voters are the same ones who believed that former President Barack Obama was never eligible to serve as president because his birth records were falsified or nonexistent, and that he wasn’t born in the United States. They were willing to accept such a preposterous lie because they wanted desperately to delegitimize the first Black president.
Trump was quite willing to use this racist birther movement as the springboard for his 2016 presidential campaign. It aligned with the anti-Obama Tea Party movement that helped Republicans win back control of the House and Senate and grasp control of state legislatures across the country.
Republican office holders and their media allies started telling their audiences that voter fraud was rampant in the United States and that it was being carried out by many of the kinds of voters who supported Obama. They began purging voter rolls, requiring voter ID, and pushing new requirements in many states that disproportionately disenfranchise voters who are Black, Latino, younger, low-income, and who don’t vote in every election.
Stated plainly, the Republican demand for voter ID in the United States only began when Black voters everywhere truly began to overcome obstacles that had kept their participation lower than that of White voters. Black folks started voting in numbers that could put Black candidates for president, vice president, or statewide office over the top.
Vice President Kamala Harris sees the voter restrictions pushed by Republicans today as merely updates of the tactics used in the Jim Crow South to deny Black Americans access to the polls.
“Today, poll taxes have been traded for long voting lines,” the vice president wrote on Instagram. “Property ownership restrictions for purges of voter rolls. Literacy tests for bans on drive-thru voting. Mail-in voting limitations. Gerrymandering. It’s all voter suppression by any other name—we must pass legislation to protect voting rights.”
In 1868, the 14th Amendment granted Black Americans the rights of citizenship, but this often did not translate into the ability to vote, because Black people were largely turned away from state polling places in the South and elsewhere.
So Congress passed the 15th Amendment in 1870: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
As Harris pointed out, states found various ways to circumvent the Constitution and prevent Black people from voting. Voter suppression laws and tactics were enforced by murders, cross burnings, and other acts of terror committed by the Ku Klux Klan and other White supremacists. Until the Supreme Court struck it down in 1915, the grandfather clause was used by Southern states to keep descendants of slaves from participating in elections.
But denial of voting rights and other voter suppression measures targeting Black Americans continued as a constant in U.S. politics and governance, and Black and White people lost their lives working to try to end them. Martin Luther King was among the civil rights leaders who helped move their country to provide greater protections for Black voters.
In 1964, the 24th Amendment prohibited the use of poll taxes. In 1965, the Voting Rights Act prohibited the states from using various arbitrary tests and challenges to exclude Black people from voting. Before this, only an estimated 23% of voting-age Black people were registered nationally, but by 1969, the number had jumped to 61%.
In the 2020 elections, all the allegations of voter fraud and irregularities from Trump, Republican officials, and their media megaphones at Fox News and elsewhere were directed at places with large Black or Brown electorates, such as Atlanta, Detroit, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and Phoenix. None of the allegations were ever substantiated, but they laid the groundwork for Republicans to claim that Americans distrusted the electoral process and that legislation was needed to restore or, at the very least, ensure voter “integrity.”
The poll tax and the grandfather clause can no longer be used by county election officials to prevent Black Americans from registering to vote or casting their ballots, and Black citizens no longer need to guess how many jellybeans are in a jar to vote. Acts of racial terror and brutal police tactics aren’t being used today the way they were used against John Lewis and C.T. Vivian to keep Black people away from the ballot box.
But the systematic efforts Republicans are employing now have the same goal as those tactics from the Jim Crow era: They seek to deny millions of Americans their full citizenship rights. Black political leaders and voting rights advocates say they must take a stand against such efforts and counter them on all fronts—through protests, in the political arena, and in the courtroom. They have every right to demand that all Americans who believe in democracy and equal protection under law stand with them.
When Reps. Joyce Beatty, Sheila Jackson Lee, and Hank Johnson protested publicly and placed themselves at risk of arrest, they were reminding their colleagues in Congress and their country of some of the sacrifices that have been necessary to ensure all Americans equal voting rights and access. They were reminding everyone that the battle to protect full citizenship rights is not just waged in the halls of Congress. Nonviolent direct action and resistance should never be dismissed as merely symbolic. Such symbolism was at the heart of how the modern civil rights movement and other justice campaigns that followed changed the country for the better.
The actions by those three members of Congress and other acts of resistance that are sure to follow are in the best tradition of John Lewis’ example of “good trouble.”
MARK ALLAN WILLIAMS was a senior editor at Bloomberg Industry and at BNA in the decades before it was acquired by Bloomberg. Prior to that, Mark was a staff writer at the St. Petersburg Times, in the years before it became the Tampa Bay Times. Mark began his career as a staff writer at the Associated Press. Mark’s M.A. is in journalism and public affairs from American University and his B.A. is in sociology from the University of Maryland Baltimore County.