ATLANTA – Black church leaders and activists in Georgia rallied Sunday to get believers out to vote, a long-standing tradition known as “souls to the polls” that takes on greater importance this year amid new obstacles to voting in the midterm elections.
At Rainbow Baptist Church near Atlanta, about two dozen cars and a large bus emblazoned with civil rights icon John Lewis formed a caravan in the parking lot. Theresa Hardy, an organizer for the voting rights group Georgia Coalition for a People’s Agenda, led a prayer before the caravan headed to a polling station at a nearby mall.
Few people in the group actually voted there, but organizers said it was important to promote voting, especially with new restrictions imposed by the state legislature.
“You’re being disenfranchised,” said Kamarcka Blackett, a Rainbow Baptist minister. “We must come out, stand together across color lines.”
State lawmakers nearly canceled a Sunday vote on a bill signed into law last year. The Republican-sponsored law came after former President Donald Trump falsely claimed that voter fraud cost him his 2020 re-election bid.
Although lawmakers abandoned a ban on Sunday voting, the bill shortened the time to request a vote-by-mail, canceled ballot box expansions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, curtailed early voting before the runoff election, and banned groups from handing out food and water to voters in line.
Republicans said Georgia’s new law is needed to restore confidence in the state’s election system. Civil rights advocates saw it as an attack on black voters who helped Democrats win Georgia’s 2020 presidential race for the first time since 1992 and later pick up two state Senate seats. They are pushing back, redoubling efforts to woo black voters.
“No matter what barriers they try to put up, we’re going to find a way for our people to get around those barriers so they can actually exercise their right to vote,” said Helen Butler, executive director of People’s Agenda.
Sunday’s caravan ended at a shopping mall, where several dozen people held placards urging passers-by to vote. During early voting, which continues on November 4, Georgia is seeing a significant jump in turnout. As of Friday morning, more than 1.25 million voters had cast ballots in person, according to the secretary of state, a jump of more than 50 percent from the 2018 midterm contest.
“Our ancestors fought much harder than we fight,” said Rhonda Taylor, a leader of the AME Church in Atlanta, who participated in Sunday’s rally. “We have to keep going.”
U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, who is facing re-election in November, attended a separate “souls to vote” event at the Atlanta church.
“Souls to the Choice” reflects the central role of the Black Church in the struggle for justice and freedom in the United States, said W. Franklin Richardson, chairman of the board of trustees of the Conference of National Black Churches.
Richardson said such efforts are especially important this election cycle.
“It is the cumulative achievements of our people that are being challenged and threatened that make this election so urgent,” he said.
The idea of ”souls at the polls” dates back to the civil rights movement. The Reverend George Lee, a black businessman from Mississippi, was murdered by white supremacists in 1955 after he helped nearly 100 black residents register to vote in the town of Belzoni.
It reflects a broader effort by the black community to use the church to gain voting rights, said Dartmouth history professor Matthew Delmont.
In addition to motivating potential voters, pastors provide “material and technical support to get people to go directly from the church service to go vote,” he said.
Fields reported from Washington.
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