On January 6, our nation experienced a brazen and violent attack on our democracy by domestic terrorists intent on overturning a fair and legal election. In the aftermath, many have said that “this is not America.” When in fact the rallying cries used by these insurrectionists were recycled from the Ku Klux Klan when they used brutal violence to prevent Black Americans from voting in the 1960s. Make no mistake, these treasonous acts perpetrated by right-wing extremists represent a return to racially motivated violence that we have witnessed throughout American history, especially during the Jim Crow-era in response to Black voting and economic power.
As the Executive Director of The Andrew Goodman Foundation, I know all too well the violent backlash that racial progress engenders, particularly when it is gained through the ballot box. My organization’s namesake, Andrew Goodman, and his fellow Freedom Summer volunteers, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner, were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan while registering Black Americans to vote in Mississippi in 1964. Their killers were also domestic terrorists who saw Black enfranchisement as a threat to white supremacy. Sadly, what happened on January 6 follows that very same pattern.
Following the 2016 election, The Andrew Goodman Foundation joined forces with several voting, legal, and civil rights groups to combat the alarming rise of voter suppression policies that disenfranchised voters across the country. Throughout 2016 and 2018, we watched as these schemes became bolder and more sophisticated, and as a result, in the lead up to the 2020 election, we embarked on a national strategy that centered on activating, advocating, and litigating. We learned the playbook and developed countermeasures for the tactics that suppressed turnout in the 2016 election. We filed lawsuits and co-hosted a series of virtual summits. We had the distinct goal of empowering young voters, particularly Black students, and other targeted populations with strategies to overcome barriers to voting. We also utilized technology to reach millions, educating them about the pertinent voting requirements and deadlines governing elections in their states; training them on how to leverage our digital tools to mobilize others on their campuses; and guiding them through fixing their ballots if they were rejected. Voting rights organizations fought back against dozens of capricious policies that intentionally made it harder for students, particularly students of color, to vote.
Our efforts, along with a number of other voting rights organizations, were successful even in the face of a global pandemic and an onslaught of suppression efforts. Over 160 million Americans voted, the highest number in a century. Our collective success in overcoming widespread voter suppression ushered in a new era of racial and gender progress. Our elected Vice President is the first woman, African American, and Asian American to ever hold that office. The state of Georgia, once a hotbed for the confederacy, elected its first Black American and Jewish American senators to the United States Senate, reminiscent of the Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner’s Black-Jewish coalition. More members of the LGBTQ community were elected to Congress. And, it was Black voters that powered much of this progress.
If history has taught us anything, it is that when legislative attempts to oppress and suppress fail, then violence follows. This is why we must harness our collective power once again to ensure that every domestic terrorist is held accountable, including our elected representatives who incited or abetted it. We are already seeing disturbing signs that the violent extremists who participated in the coup attempt may not face consequences commiserate with their crimes or at all. If they are not held accountable for attacking and spreading feces throughout the sacred halls of our democracy’s Mecca, then their efforts will be legitimized and they will be emboldened to escalate their deadly violence.
We must continue to organize and demand accountability. But, most importantly, we must work to bring about the day when the fundamental right of Black Americans to participate in our democracy, whether by voting or demonstrating, is not threatened by legislation, intimidation, or violence.
Alexandria Harris, Esq. is the Executive Director of The Andrew Goodman Foundation and a graduate of Spelman College and Harvard Law.
This is an opinion piece that does not necessarily represent the view of BLACK ENTERPRISE.