For more than 60 years, my family history has been intertwined with the struggle for multiracial democracy in Georgia.
I was a baby when my father Andrew Young began registering Black citizens to vote in Thomasville, Georgia – only to be met by a Ku Klux Klan rally. In elementary school, I integrated an Atlanta private school and my mother Jean Young sent me door-to-door to help register voters in our Mozley Park neighborhood. In 1965, she took me to Selma to march for voting rights.
My most inspiring childhood memory is learning about civil rights advocacy at one of the citizenship training schools in Dorchester, Georgia, led by Septima Clark. This training is how leaders like Fannie Lou Hamer learned about their rights as American citizens. I have always believed that I am accountable to the women of the rural South who risked everything in the fight for civil rights.
Later, as a teenager, I witnessed the Georgia legislature’s attempt to redraw the 5th Congressional district in order to block my father from winning a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. The intervention of the ACLU meant that he was elected to the U.S. Congress with a multiracial coalition.
Perhaps that is why, as the ACLU of Georgia celebrates its 60th, I am moved to write about how this organization has never been more important in the quest for voting rights for all in Georgia.
As an organization, the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia started advocating for voting rights right after its formation. Founded in 1963, the ACLU of Georgia was quickly drawn into the effort to make sure the state of Georgia abided by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and its new requirements for jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination.
In its ninth year, the ACLU of Georgia went to court to challenge the state’s redistricting plan and prevailed, paving the way for my father to become the first Black person to be elected from the 5th District of Georgia to Congress from the deep South since Reconstruction.
Just as we did in the early 1960s and ‘70s, we continue to push back against state and local government efforts to restrict access to the voting booth. Sadly, despite our efforts, the new battles resemble the old battles. Just this week, we went to trial to challenge new congressional and state legislative districts drawn by the Georgia legislature in 2021. Our challenge before the U.S. District Court contends that the new maps deny Black voters an equal opportunity to participate in the political process.
This is in clear violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the very same federal law that was resisted by the state in the early days of the ACLU of Georgia. We did not back down then and will not now or in the future. As a trained lawyer, I am determined to use our legal system to protect voting rights and all matters of civil rights.
Last month, a federal judge ruled in our favor by striking down a Georgia ban on providing food and water to voters waiting in long lines at the polls. The judge agreed with our position that the ban likely violated the First Amendment right to free expression. That means people standing in lines of more than 150 feet in next year’s national election will get the relief they deserve.
Additionally, the court struck down a new state law requiring voters to provide their birthdate on their absentee ballot envelopes. Otherwise, they would have been rejected – another action at odds with our fundamental, democratic right to cast a ballot.
Where this basic right is denied, the ACLU of Georgia will be there to challenge it. In June, we warned members of the Fulton County Board of Commissioners of the danger to democracy if they elect candidates to the Fulton County Board of Registration and Elections who embrace mass voter challenges that disenfranchise eligible voters. And in July, we sent a letter to the Irwin County Board of Elections and Registration in response to its proposal to eliminate two out of three existing polling locations in the county – which would make it significantly harder for voters in Irwin County to cast ballots.
To shape the Georgia we want – where everyone can participate in our democracy, focus on the matters most important to their lives, choose the best candidates and make informed voting decisions – we must move past partisan politics and work in a nonpartisan manner on behalf of all Georgians. Only then can we truly reflect our great state’s diversity.
To get there, the ACLU of Georgia must keep up the fight to protect voting rights for all citizens. Voting must be easy, for every citizen and every vote should have the same weight. We will continue to train and prepare people across Georgia to attend and inform themselves about what’s happening at meetings of their county board of elections. We will continue to press for convenient voting locations, more weekend voting options and more early-voting sites on college campuses.
Sixty years after the birth of the ACLU of Georgia and my own early baptism into the struggle for voting rights, we should demand nothing less.
Andrea Young is executive director of the 22,000-member American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Georgia and a lifelong advocate for civil and human rights.