Straight out of the Black Belt of Alabama, Skylight presents a short and timely film from their film archives entitled “I’ll Vote On.” In 1985, Alabama State Attorney General Jeff Sessions brought charges of voter fraud against newly elected Black officials. What ensued was a systematic campaign of intimidation, involving the FBI, against both elected officials and voters. Up till then, it was the largest “voter fraud” case in US history. As the film shows, for the first time in a century, southern Black people were taking back control of their local government through the ballot box. It didn’t take long for forces of reaction to wage war against this expansion of democracy. In this era of Reagan, it was significant that the reaction was not just coming from the local or state level, but involved the federal government. Organized opposition to the gains of the southern Freedom Movement were on the offensive.
In 1985 Jeff Sessions, then Alabama State Attorney General, brought voter fraud charges against newly elected Black local officials. "I'll Vote On," A Skylight Archives Presentation
On December 12 of this year, the state of Alabama will hold a special election to fill Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ Senate seat. Republican nominee, and pistol-packing poser cowboy, Roy Moore has made national news for his hateful politics. Now he is facing multiple allegations of predation of minors and sexual assault. It’s a scandal for sure and Moore should be held accountable. But what “I’ll Vote On” helps us see, through the lens of history, is the larger systemic injustice we must dismantle.
Albert Turner, Sr. is one of the elected officials and courageous freedom fighters featured in “I’ll Vote On.” He was a veteran of Bloody Sunday, among those who were attacked crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, AL. He organized for the SCLC, and led the mule drawn wagon carrying Dr. King’s coffin in 1968. Later he filled the office of Perry County Commissioner, and it was at this point when then Alabama Attorney General Jeff Sessions made his attack. When, in 1986, Sessions was up for a federal judge nomination, Coretta Scott King gave powerful testimony in protest:
Civil rights leaders, including my husband and Albert Turner, have fought long and hard to achieve free and unfettered access to the ballot box. Mr. Sessions has used the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens in the district he now seeks to serve as a federal judge.
When it comes to voter suppression, these anti-democratic methods of disfranchisement are inextricably tied to the history of slavery and Jim Crow. Today’s attacks on fundamental rights are the descendant of the “3/5ths Compromise” in the original US Constitution—the means by which slaveholders secured disproportionate power over national politics to maintain their power to oppress and exploit enslaved Black people and amass tremendous economic and political power. They are cut from the same cloth as the counter-revolution against Reconstruction.
The Kairos Center and the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival are taking up the unfinished business of Dr. King and all those who united with the Poor People’s Campaign fifty years ago. It is instructive in this context to trace the history between the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which opened the door not only to Black voting but Black political leadership in the form of elected officials. Voting is no abstract right. It is an integral part of communities realizing their interests and meeting their needs from education to economic well being. The enemies of democracy understand well the power of the vote—otherwise they would not wage war on it.
As the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival is taking shape, it is certain that voting rights will be central to our fight. Our sisters and brothers from the Moral Movement in North Carolina have led the nation in the struggle against voter suppression, and the fight continues. The attack on voting rights throughout the country, and in particular in the states of the former Confederacy, reveal as clearly as any issue the inseparability of racism and poverty. Voter suppression laws and gerrymandering disproportionately impact people of color to the detriment of all poor and dispossessed people.
Talking about how “I’ll Vote On” came to be, the film’s editor, Peter Kinoy, explains that Skylight had produced a film called “Resurgence: The Movement for Equality vs. the KKK” (1980). “Resurgence” captures an example of inspiring union organizing as well as the resurgence of the Klan at the time, particularly around the events of the Greensboro Massacre. Through vibrant organizers like Ted Quant, the legendary Anne Braden who was working on an anti-Klan project through the Center for Constitutional Rights, and others, Skylight connected with the courageous freedom fighters, true unsung saints, you’ll see in this film.
Kinoy goes on to say, “The film was used primarily to rally support to defend the voting rights and the newly elected Black officials. It was also used educationally to teach about power relations in the South at that time.” As we come to a common understanding of the inseparability of racism, poverty, militarism, and ecological devastation, “I’ll Vote On” serves as an example of how we can educate ourselves and others in the effort to build a social movement in this country led by the poor across color lines.
Skylight is a human rights media organization. It uses media to inspire, envision and build a better world. Its partners in this work are human rights leaders around the globe who recognize the power of compelling narratives to change how people see themselves and others, moving societies toward greater justice and equality. Skylight endorses the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.