Charles Weltner was a hero of the civil rights era. A white Democrat, he served in Congress during the early 1960s and was the only Georgian who supported the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In 1966, he chose to resign rather than support the Democratic Party’s candidate for governor, segregationist Lester Maddox.
When Weltner was up for reelection in 1962, many wanted to see him go. I remember being at an Atlanta polling place in 1962 as a SNCC activist and seeing one response from his enemies. They hired white men dressed as armed police officers to patrol polling places where Black voters were expected to vote, most likely for Congressman Weltner. The pseudo-cops didn’t physically threaten anyone, but they were clearly there to frighten away black voters.
Weltner came to mind when I heard that Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp had issued a subpoena to the New Georgia Project, the nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that is closing the racial gap in voter registration in Georgia. There are currently more than 800,000 unregistered voters of color in Georgia, and the New Georgia Project has worked with other groups to register more than 85,000 of them since the beginning of the year. They are on track to reach more than 100,000 by election day.
Secretary Kemp’s subpoena is a blatant attempt at voter suppression that recalls the tactics of Charles Weltner’s opponents. When pressed to defend his claims of “voter fraud,” Kemp was unable to produce as many as 100 of the alleged fraudulent forms. Indeed, it was revealed last week that his office, which is responsible for handling voter registration forms, had processed less than one third of the New Georgia Project’s 85,000 new forms – even as election day is fast approaching.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that a Republican secretary of state is using every means possible – no matter how low – to trample the voting rights of people of color. In recent years Georgia has undergone a great demographic change, with black, Latino and Asian voters moving into the state at great speed. These new voters, many of them unregistered, have the potential to make Georgia a much more progressive state. As we learned during Charles Weltner’s campaign, fear of change can bring out the worst in people.
Indeed, the Georgia GOP has a long history of attempting to suppress the vote and smother voter registration and turnout. Over the years I have lived and served in Georgia, they have used overt methods, such as the make-believe police officers employed to thwart Weltner’s re-election.
Recently, they have begun to use more subtle methods, like demanding forms of identification not required by law and then passing a law requiring those forms of identification. In just the past two years, they have played fast and loose with election dates and attempted to end early and Sunday voting when it would not work in their favor.
Secretary Kemp’s decision exemplifies the most pressing domestic issue American democracy currently faces: whether we will deny our citizens open and free access to the franchise. That answer to that question will determine the answers to so many other questions: will we close the wealth and income gaps that are growing in Georgia and across the country? Will we defend access to education and health care, protect against discrimination, and advance civil rights wherever possible?
Secretary Kemp should focus on getting new registrants on the rolls and expanding access to voting – not on attacking groups that are working hard to expand the franchise.
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Julian Bond is Chairman Emeritus of the NAACP and served in the Georgia House and Senate for 20 years. A teacher at American University, he is the founder of the Southern Elections Fund and sits on its board.