Update: We are happy to report that Ms. Pearson’s retrial lasted all of one day, and she was acquitted of the felony charges.
Tomorrow — Thursday, February 22, 2018 — Olivia Pearson will stand trial. Ms. Pearson is a city commissioner in Douglas, GA (rural, southeastern Georgia — Coffee County) and faces felony charges for allegedly committing voter fraud during the 2012 election.
Ms. Pearson, who is African American, has served as an elected public servant in Coffee County for many years. She is accused of helping a young, black woman — a first-time voter — cast her ballot. Not telling her who to vote for — but showing her how to use the machine, which was not allowed by state law. Details of the case have been covered by the Daily Yonder and BuzzFeed.
The broad network of committed grassroots leaders who are coming to Ms. Pearson’s defense point out that her situation is one example of a larger strategy to suppress the vote. The felony charges make the stakes very high — both in the particulars of Ms. Pearson’s case, but also because even bringing these charges sends a loud and clear message that discourages electoral engagement, particularly among people of color.
Current voter suppression and intimidation are today’s manifestation of a historically evolved divide-and-conquer strategy — an expression of the racist and anti-poor “Southern Strategy.” At the Kairos Center, as we play our part to build the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, we see the racialized nature of voter suppression as fundamentally anti-democratic and as part of an attack on all poor and marginalized people. Our aim to unite the poor and dispossessed across color-lines means we need to understand what voter suppression is and how it works.
It’s worth noting how Ms. Pearson’s case came to our attention. Last Tuesday, February 13th, a delegation of leaders representing the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival traveled to the Mississippi Delta and joined leaders from Marks, MS (Quitman County), home of the Mule Train from the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign. We gathered at the historic Valley Queen Missionary Baptist Church where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. eulogized a fallen fighter in 1966 and was then profoundly moved by the intense poverty he saw. Tuesday’s gathering brought together community and religious leaders from Marks, Memphis, Jackson and beyond to unite and continue the struggle that Dr. King began 50 years ago. It was in that context that we learned of Ms. Pearson’s case.
Among the leaders gathered in that sacred space was Carol Blackmon, representing Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative (SRBWI), a program of the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF). Ms. Blackmon brought with her twenty powerful Black women representing a number of rural communities in the Delta. Ms. Blackmon told us about Ms. Pearson’s case.
It was fitting, since history binds the Children’s Defense Fund and SRBWI to the original Poor People’s Campaign. In 1968, Marian Wright [Edelman], later the founder of CDF, played a critical role in moving Dr. King to embrace the idea of a Poor People’s Campaign; she brought his attention to the struggle of the poor in rural Mississippi. Now, 50 years later, a beautiful array of grassroots leaders joined together at Valley Queen Church to honor the memory of the Mule Train, laying the foundation for future collaboration, and picking up the mantle of the Poor People’s Campaign — not just in one place, but across the nation. Everyone there knew that the future of democracy in Quitman County, Mississippi is bound to the future of democracy in Coffee County, Georgia.
It was in this context, more than 500 miles away from Douglas, GA that Ms. Blackmon raised Ms. Pearson’s case to our attention and asked that we assist in bearing witness. Across this nation, and not just in the former Confederate states, voter suppression laws and voter intimidation tactics have been systematically employed over the years. Add to this reality a number of other examples, from emergency financial managers in Michigan to the dismantling of public services in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, and we see a pattern of anti-democratic practices spreading across our nation. So we are heeding the call of Ms. Blackmon and others who have been shining a light on this critical situation, because an injury to one is an injury to all.
We encourage you to monitor this story and urge those who are able to attend Ms. Pearson’s trial to bear witness.
Forward together, not one step back!