Black Church Leaders In Georgia On The Importance Of 'Souls To The Polls'

Mar 22, 2021
Originally published on March 22, 2021 11:51 am

Updated March 22, 2021 at 11:48 AM ET

Georgia Republican lawmakers have backed off of a proposal that would have curtailed early voting on Sundays in the state.

Sunday voting is especially important for congregants in Black churches, which regularly hold "souls to the polls" events after Sunday services.

"We gather in our churches on Sunday morning, you have morning worship and then after the service you get on the church buses, church vans, get in cars and people go to vote," says Bishop Reginald T. Jackson of the Sixth Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Jackson is the presiding prelate over more than 500 churches in Georgia.

"It's a very effective way the Black church has of getting out our vote," he tells Steve Inskeep on Morning Edition.

Georgia's Republican-led House passed HB 531 earlier this month. One of its provisions would have largely standardized voting across counties, limiting the ability of counties to offer more days to vote. Backers of the change argued that it would have brought more uniformity and less confusion to the state's elections.

After pushback from Black Georgians, Democrats and some in the business community, modified measures would require early voting to be available on two Saturdays before elections, and give local officials the option to open polls on two Sundays.

Black churches' involvement in politics and voter mobilization goes back to the years after the Civil War. But they became a major force during the civil rights movement.

"Souls to the polls has a direct link back to Jim Crow when we were fighting for the right to vote," says Christy Jackson, the supervisor of the Sixth Episcopal District who is also married to Bishop Jackson. "It became something that gave us comfort, to go in a group with our church group during those times to go and vote."

In modern times, Christy Jackson tells Morning Edition, souls to the polls is for the larger community, not just for members of the church. "They might just be community members who get on the bus knowing that they have sort of a safe transport, if you will, to the polls."

Churches are especially important for mobilizing African Americans in rural counties, Christy Jackson says. "There are some polling locations, voting locations that are 10, 15, 20 miles from where a person lives. And so these central located churches, for example, then become what we call neighborhood hubs."

The bills in Georgia's legislature that would increase barriers to voting are largely backed by Republicans.

A Republican criticism is that Black church leaders influence their members on how to vote. State Sen. Larry Walker earlier told NPR he's concerned about "undue influence" on voters with other people helping to fill out ballots.

Black voters have leaned heavily Democratic for decades.

Reginald Jackson counters that "the goal is to get people to vote. You don't tell them how to vote, but we are encouraging them to vote." He says he's not afraid to advise people if he's asked. "That's a common, ordinary thing," he says — adding that it happens in white, heavily Republican, evangelical churches as well.

The bishop says that if any measures that hinder voting end up becoming law, African Americans will persevere.

"If you go back to early times of Jim Crow, even though they did everything to make it hard for us to vote, our ancestors still made every gallant effort. They cast their ballot. Blacks are resilient," he says.

Christy Jackson adds that recounting the struggles of the past to young activists is essential. "You have to tell the story so that you can see the throughline to the other side."

Victoria Whitley-Berry and Jacob Conrad produced and edited the audio interview.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A Republican effort to restrict voting in Georgia is slowly becoming less extreme. After Republicans lost the state in the 2020 election, lawmakers are considering bills that impose new limits on early voting and mail voting. But under fierce criticism, some of those provisions are changing. One of the most notable involves Sunday voting. A bill in Georgia's House of Representatives originally eliminated early voting on Sundays, which would endanger events by Black churchgoers, known as Souls to the Polls. When we called the bishop of Georgia's African Methodist Episcopal Church, we got an earful.

REGINALD JACKSON: I would remind you that all of this is based on a lie - or what they call now the big lie - by the former liar in chief.

INSKEEP: Bishop Reginald Jackson oversees more than 500 churches across Georgia. His wife, Christy Davis Jackson, oversees church missionary work. They both spoke with us last week as the proposals were beginning to change.

JACKSON: We gather in our churches on Sunday morning. You have morning worship. And then after the service, you get on the church buses, church vans, get in cars and people go to vote. It's a very effective way the Black church has of getting out our vote.

INSKEEP: That Sunday sermon doesn't say, vote for candidate X.

JACKSON: Absolutely not. The goal is to get people to vote. We don't tell them how to vote. But we are encouraging them to vote.

INSKEEP: Christy Jackson, when there is a Souls to the Polls event, are you present in one church or another?

CHRISTY DAVIS JACKSON: I am. So generally speaking, in most African American churches, the majority of the population, the congregants, are women. We make up probably 70% to 80% of most churches. And most of those women are missionaries in one way or another. And so I'll be there to align myself with one of the Souls to the Polls. And what's really interesting - the Souls to the Polls has a direct link back to Jim Crow. When we were fighting for the right to vote, it became something that gave us comfort, to go in a group. They might just be community members who get on the bus knowing that they have sort of a safe transport, if you will, to the polls.

INSKEEP: We spoke with Republican state Senator Larry Walker of Georgia, who is a sponsor of one of the many voting bills, and I'd like you to hear some of what he said.

LARRY WALKER: I am concerned that there are situations where there is sort of mass voting events, where there's undue influence exerted on the voter, and people are assisting them to fill out their ballot. So the Souls to the Polls idea, that's where I would have some concerns.

INSKEEP: What do you think of what Senator Walker said?

DAVIS JACKSON: I'm disappointed in Senator Walker for saying that. Is he supposing some type of fraudulent activity on a group of parishioners, congregants, that they can't make up their own mind? Is he saying this after three audits - three audits - of our voting system and the general election vote in the state of Georgia?

JACKSON: Steve, it's even more troubling than that because the fact of the matter is, to make that kind of a statement assumes that nobody in the state of Georgia or nobody in the United States helps anybody to vote. You have people who assist somebody filling out their ballot or, in fact, somebody who might say - 'cause there are people who say to me as their pastor, Pastor, who do you think is the best one I should vote for? That's a common, ordinary thing. And it's not like somebody puts a gun to their head and says, you got to vote for this. No, that's nonsense. And to say or to suppose that doesn't happen in the white community is also nonsensical.

INSKEEP: Bishop Reginald Jackson and his wife and colleague Christy Davis Jackson spoke with us from separate locations in Georgia.

Now, since the first proposal to eliminate Sunday voting, the measure has been softened in the Legislature in Georgia, and it's expected to change again today. Stephen Fowler of Georgia Public Broadcasting is following the story. Stephen, good morning.

STEPHEN FOWLER, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: How is the bill changing?

FOWLER: So, Steve, the beginning of the bill, when it was introduced, as you mentioned, would get rid of Sunday voting effectively, by making all of Georgia's 159 counties, big and small, have the same early voting days and hours. Then the House restored some of the changes but made it a little bit tricky because counties could pick between one Saturday or one Sunday. People didn't like that - including the Jacksons, by the way - and said that a lot of Republican counties might not choose to have that extra weekend voting hour, and it would limit bigger counties from having more options.

This new version of the legislation that should be discussed today comes from the House Special Committee on Election Integrity. This would require counties to actually expand early voting access, having two Saturdays of early voting that are mandatory and giving counties the option of being open on Sundays.

INSKEEP: OK, so counties can choose. Counties might still choose not to have Sunday voting. But the options are broadening. Why are Republicans changing?

FOWLER: Well, there has been a lot of pushback. Obviously, Democrats and voting rights groups have called these bills Jim Crow in a suit and tie. They say it disproportionately impacts Black voters in particular. But also, the business community in Georgia has gotten involved, with the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce saying that they don't necessarily support bills that harm voter access. And Georgia is a battleground state in 2020, and 2022 is probably poised to be no different, so there are some Republicans that don't want to have this next to their name.

INSKEEP: Don't want to be criticized by voters and maybe punished by voters for limiting voting. But we should note, this matter of Sunday voting is just one of many, many provisions on the table with many bills that we've been listening to your reporting about. So what else is evolving in this legislation?

FOWLER: Well, the Senate originally passed a bill that would get rid of no-excuse absentee voting, which we've had for about 15 years. That no longer is on the table. This bill does impose some new restrictions, like adding an ID requirement to absentee voting and limiting where drop boxes can go. But this is definitely a walk-back from some of the most contentious provisions, Steve.

INSKEEP: Well, are the critics of these bills any more satisfied?

FOWLER: Well, yes and no. They still say that it makes it harder for Georgians.

INSKEEP: Stephen, thanks for the update. Really appreciate it.

FOWLER: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's Stephen Fowler of Georgia Public Broadcasting, who's covering elections in that vital state.

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