Today's Paper Digital FAQ Obits Newsletters ✅NWA Vote Covid Classroom Coronavirus Cancellations NWA Screening Sites Virus Interactive Map Coronavirus FAQ Crime Razorback Sports Today's Photos Puzzles
ADVERTISEMENT
story.lead_photo.caption New Mount Calvary Baptist Church members Marles Cooper, right, and Deacon Will, left, visit with DuWayne Evans who rode up on his bicycle and picked up a piece of pie from the church food shelf Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020, in North Minneapolis. In addition to food assistance, Bishop Divar L. Bryant Kemp makes a plea year-round to both his congregants and others outside of his church to get out and vote, emphasizing the efforts of past civil rights leaders that fought for Black citizens to receive that right. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

For the Rev. Jimmy Gates Sr., the 2008 presidential election year was one to remember -- and not just because it yielded a historic result as the nation elected its first Black president.

The pastor of Zion Hill Baptist Church in Cleveland recalls how, on the last Sunday of early voting before the general election, he and his congregation traveled in a caravan of packed buses, vans and cars to the city's Board of Elections office and joined a line of voters that seemed to stretch a mile.

"What a sight to see," Gates said. "Seniors, middle-aged people, young people."

In recent election cycles, Black church congregations across the country have launched get-out-the-vote campaigns commonly referred to as "souls to the polls." To counteract racist voter suppression tactics that date back to the Jim Crow era, early voting in the Black community is stressed from pulpits nearly as much as it is by the candidates seeking their support.

But voter mobilization in Black church communities will look much different in 2020, due in large part to the coronavirus pandemic that has infected millions across the U.S. and has taken a disproportionate toll on Black America.

Churches have organized socially distant caravans with greatly reduced transportation capacity for early voting and Election Day ballot-casting. Church volunteers are phone-banking and canvasing the homes of their members to ensure mail-in and absentee ballots are requested and hand-delivered to election board offices or drop boxes before the deadlines.

But outreach has been complicated because many churches have been holding services virtually for months, with some having only recently resumed worship in person.

Black Voters Matter, a national voting rights group that organizes in 15 states, is trying to help churches assist people who count on a "souls to the polls" ride on or before Election Day.

"It's not whether there are enough votes out there," said Cliff Albright, a co-founder of the group. "It's whether we have the strategy, the resources and the election protection to make sure that the voters who want to show up are actually able to do so and be counted."

The Associated Press interviewed pastors, congregants and voting rights advocates nationwide to get a sense of how efforts to mobilize Black voters would play out during a deadly pandemic when Black people have been disproportionately affected by virus-related layoffs, and issues of systemic racism are top of mind.

Black Americans have far higher rates of joblessness than the national average and the highest COVID-19 mortality rate of any racial group.

The turbulence of 2020 and fears of contracting the coronavirus have the potential to depress turnout even among reliable segments of Black voters, advocates say. So this year's voter mobilization has to succeed at a level it didn't in 2016, compared to 2008 and 2012, Gates said.

"We must vote like our life depends on it," he said. "Yes, we know God takes care of us and is the supplier of all our needs. But God has given us a will to do the right thing. You didn't listen to us in 2016. So my thing is, do you hear me now?"

Some pastors say the coast-to-coast unrest that followed the police killings of Black Americans this year has motivated their congregations. In Minneapolis, where a white officer held his knee to the neck of George Floyd, voters want to see policing reforms at the legislative level, said Bishop Divar L. Bryant Kemp, pastor of New Mount Calvary Baptist Church in North Minneapolis.

"I tell people all the time, 'Don't talk to me about what needs to be changed if you haven't voted to make a change,'" he said.

The challenge for Kemp will be getting voters to the polls safely. A church van used in previous elections recently broke down.

"We considered renting a van to take them to the polls, but either way we're going to do it," Kemp said.

"Souls to the polls" as an idea traces back to the civil rights movement. The Rev. George Lee, a Black Mississippi entrepreneur, was assassinated by white supremacists in 1955, after he helped nearly 100 Black residents register to vote in the town of Belzoni. The cemetery where Lee is buried has served as a polling place.

"There was a statement that he once made advocating voting rights: 'Don't cry for my mama and my daddy. They're already gone. You need to cry for your children that will come along,'" said Wardell Walton, Belzoni's first Black mayor, who served between 2005 and 2013.

Lee's memory should "inspire us to continue to move forward despite the obstacles," said Walton, 70.

Morrison is a member of the AP's Race and Ethnicity team. Follow him on Twitter at aaronlmorrison.

photo
A woman and child walk past Laurae Caruth, right, volunteer with Christian Cultural Center Social Justice Initiative's voter registration drive, as she sits at a table where she registers voters, Friday, Sept. 18, 2020, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. "I'm out here volunteering because of how important it is to exercise the right to vote," Caruth said. In recent election cycles, predominantly Black congregations across the country have launched get-out-the-vote campaigns commonly referred to as “souls to the polls.” But instead of packing buses and vans to shuttle people to early voting sites this year, church leaders say they are organizing caravans for absentee ballot drop-offs and in-person early voting. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
photo
Attorney Keith White, a director of social justice initiatives at Christian Cultural Center, stands next to a bus the church plans to update with COVID-19 protocols to transport people to the polls on Election Day, Friday, Sept. 18, 2020, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. White has been petitioning New York City elections officials to allow his predominantly Black church in Brooklyn to serve as a polling location. Whether or not that happens, the church will use its van and a charter bus to shuttle early voters between now and Election Day, he said. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
photo
Bishop Divar L. Bryant Kemp poses at the New Mount Calvary Baptist Church food shelf, Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020, in North Minneapolis. In addition to the food shelf, Kemp makes a plea year-round to both his congregants and others outside of his church to get out and vote, emphasizing the efforts of past civil rights leaders that fought for Black citizens to receive that right. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)
photo
New Mount Calvary Baptist Church members Marles Cooper, left, and Deacon Will visit with DuWayne Evans, right, who rode up on his bicycle and picked up a piece of pie from the church food shelf Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020, in North Minneapolis. In addition to the food shelf, Bishop Divar L. Bryant Kemp makes a plea year-round to both his congregants and others outside of his church to get out and vote, emphasizing the efforts of past civil rights leaders that fought for Black citizens to receive that right. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)
photo
Attorney Keith White, center, a director of social justice initiatives at Christian Cultural Center, and New York City Council member Farah Louis, right, pass out voter information in the Brooklyn borough of New York, Friday, Sept. 18, 2020. White has been petitioning New York City elections officials to allow his predominantly Black church in Brooklyn to serve as a polling location. Whether or not that happens, the church will use its van and a charter bus to shuttle early voters between now and Election Day, he said. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
photo
Volunteers work outside the gates of the Christian Cultural Center, a predominantly Black church, registering new voters Friday, Sept. 18, 2020, in New York. In recent election cycles, predominantly Black congregations across the country have launched get-out-the-vote campaigns commonly referred to as “souls to the polls.” But instead of packing buses and vans to shuttle people to early voting sites this year, church leaders say they are organizing caravans for absentee ballot drop-offs and in-person early voting. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
photo
New York City Council member Farah Louis, right, who works as a volunteer with Christian Cultural Center's Social Justice Initiative's voter registration drive, tries to convince a woman to register at a table outside the the church, Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. "Just a conversation of why it's important to vote will lead them to the polls," Louis said. "Souls to the polls campaign is about getting everyone to the polls." (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
photo
Attorney Keith White, right, a director of social justice initiatives at Christian Cultural Center, passes out information on voting as he canvasses the neighborhood with volunteers in the Brooklyn borough of New York, Friday, Sept. 18, 2020. White has been petitioning New York City elections officials to allow his predominantly Black church in Brooklyn to serve as a polling location. Whether or not that happens, the church will use its van and a charter bus to shuttle early voters between now and Election Day, he said. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

Sponsor Content

Comments

COMMENTS - It looks like you're using Internet Explorer, which isn't compatible with our commenting system. You can join the discussion by using another browser, like Firefox or Google Chrome.
It looks like you're using Microsoft Edge. Our commenting system is more compatible with Firefox and Google Chrome.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT