MISSISSIPPI – Two members of Feminist Majority Foundation’s campus team were in Jackson, Mississippi this past week engaging with social justice groups on the subject of modern-day voter suppression.
National Campus Organizer Edwith Theogene and Campus Communications Associate Taylor Kuether attended plenaries, workshops, and breakout sessions centralized around voting and labor issues as part of Mississippi Freedom Summer 50th Anniversary conference at Tougaloo College. They joined 1500 conference participants from 23 states, including 500 youth participants.
Theogene and Kuether also represented Feminist Majority Foundation in the conference’s youth component, Freedom Summer Youth Congress. On Thursday, they trained a group of high school and college students to create student groups of their own, organizing around issues including voting rights.
Wednesday’s workshops and sessions heavily featured the issue of voter suppression, the very issue that incited a groundswell of grassroots organizing in the summer of 1964, or Freedom Summer. This year, rather than fighting for equal voting rights, the issue is reclaiming voting rights that were stripped away by the Supreme Court last summer. The Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder gutted, with a slim 5-4 decision, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Court declared unconstitutional Section 4 of the act that established the formula determining which states, primarily in the South, with a history of prior racial discrimination needed to obtain prior federal approval or preclearance before a change in the state’s voting laws could go into effect.
Hollis Watkins, a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi and National Chair of Freedom 50, spoke during a press conference about registering African American voters in the summer of 1964. “We gradually gave power not only to a few, but begin to spread the power among the masses of the people. When I say power, I’m talking about having the capacity to make things happen,” Watkins said. “One of the ways that this would come about would be through registering a lot of our people to vote.”
Derrick Johnson, Mississippi state president of NAACP, said a vote for every single person is imperative in the democratic system. “Voting is not about election cycles, it is about using our democratic currency,” Johnson said. “The voter ID law is similar to the poll tax; it prevents African Americans from being able to vote.”
Theogene attended for FMF a breakout session on Wednesday titled, “Voting Rights: ‘Our Southern Strategy Taking the Leadership,'” receiving further training in voter rights issues both current and historic.
“How do we live in this post-Shelby world?” asked Theogene, “In 1964 we fought so hard for the voting rights act, and last year it was gutted. We’re still fighting the same fight we fought in 1964. It may look different, but it’s not.”
“We need to use old strategies to inform new strategies,” said Theogene, “this isn’t a new battle. We need to come up with a strategy to break down a political platform built on excluding people, and that’s why voting matters.”
The Mississippi Freedom Summer 50th Anniversary Conference continued through Saturday. On Thursday, Theogene and Kuether trained students in grassroots organizing on their campuses in the areas of voting rights and other social justice issues as part of the conference’s Freedom Summer Youth Congress.
Follow Theogene and Kuether’s trip, including event recaps, photos, and live-tweets of conference sessions, at @FeministCampus.