Civil rights icon shares 1960s voter-registration struggle, why Miss. is ’reverting’

Photo by Jim Peppler, Alabama Department of Archives and History
Photo by Jim Peppler, Alabama Department of Archives and History(Photo by Jim Peppler, Alabama Department of Archives and History)
Updated: Feb. 3, 2021 at 1:17 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Of all the injustices that exist against African Americans today, voter suppression weighs heavy on the heart of 76-year-old civil rights leader Wendell Paris, Sr.

“Voting is the closest you will ever get to being free in the United States,” Paris said.

A minister at New Hope Baptist Church in Jackson, Paris was a former Tuskegee Institute student who came to Sunflower County, Mississippi, in the 1960s, also known as the revolutionary decade.

His job - to help civil rights giant Fannie Lou Hamer register Black voters.

“The greatest education I have ever received is sitting at the feet of Fannie Lou Hamer,” Paris said. “That first week, we registered about 200 people. The next week, maybe 400.”

Photo by Jim Peppler, Alabama Department of Archives and History
Photo by Jim Peppler, Alabama Department of Archives and History(Photo by Jim Peppler, Alabama Department of Archives and History)

Paris arrived in the Magnolia State just before the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Slaves were free. The Reconstruction era was over.

Blacks represented the majority in Mississippi, but racism and discrimination was still king, Paris said.

“The Republican party allowed black people to participate, so the Democratic party said - boom - we’re gonna keep it lily-white and elect our people under the Democratic party,” he added.

Paris said Blacks in Mississippi were overwhelmingly Republican out of loyalty to Republican President Abraham Lincoln, who freed slaves. That later changed under Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

But the activist says Democrats were not happy at the time.

“They plotted to take away our voting rights, to do away with black people voting, to control who ran the country and how they ran it,” he added.

After a constitutional convention, Blacks went from 49 percent of registered voters in southern states to less than one percent, triggering the launch of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

Founded and led by Fannie Lou Hamer, the party was open to everyone without regard to race.

Hamer organized busloads of people who traveled from Mississippi and Alabama to Georgia to national conventions, challenge the seating of the all-white Mississippi Democratic Party.

Hamer testified on national television about the treatment of Blacks in Mississippi, who faced death just to have their voices heard.

One of the first Black college students killed was a close friend of Paris’.

Samuel Younge Jr. led the voter registration campaign and worked alongside Paris, who said their civil rights work, ‘was like running for your life every minute’.

Photo by Jim Peppler, Alabama Department of Archives and History
Photo by Jim Peppler, Alabama Department of Archives and History(Photo by Jim Peppler, Alabama Department of Archives and History)

Nearly half a century later and Paris says America has yet to move forward in making it easier for everyone to vote.

“We are reverting to what took place in Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia,” he said.

And he’s not alone.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi says the current Senate Bill 2588 is a voter-suppression tool and would “force election commissioners to remove voters from the voter rolls for simply not voting.”

Late January 2021, the bill passed out of the Senate Elections Committee, meaning it could be brought up for a vote by the entire Senate.

The measure would create a new code section to require county registrars or election commissioners to remove voters (from the statewide elections management system) who fail to respond to a voter confirmation notice.

The ACLU says they are engaged in litigation across the country to get rid of voter suppression measures once and for all.

The civil liberties union says these laws burden and discourage eligible voters from trying to exercise their most fundamental constitutional right, including cuts to early voting, voter ID laws, and purges of voter rolls.

“The right to vote should not be us a ‘use it or lose it’ policy,” the ACLU says. “Once registered, a voter should not be disenfranchised so long as the voter remains eligible to vote. That basic principle is one that should be jealously guarded in our democracy regardless of one’s political persuasion.”

In an article shared online with two other female lawmakers, Mississippi Rep. Zakiya Summers (D) says, “The legislatures of Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina are ground zero for modern-day voter suppression.”

Before the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder, Summers says Southern states seeking to change voting laws had to seek approval from the federal government. But the three lawmakers say another voter suppression strategy has taken hold in Southern legislatures.

“It is just as malicious...” Summers says along with South Caroline Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter (D) and U.S. Congresswoman Nikema Williams.

“...The suppression of new ideas and dogged resistance to moving our elections into the 21st century - even during a pandemic. It’s clear that in majority white, conservative legislatures, there is little motivation to address unequal access to voting.”

The women claim Southern legislatures are standing in the way of commonsense changes to voting systems that other states are making readily.

“It should not take lawsuits to compel South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas to expand absentee voting. Black voters in Georgia should not have to wait in hours-long lines because there aren’t enough polling locations in their neighborhoods. Mississippi voters shouldn’t be prohibited from voting early or registering online because of antiquated laws.”

Voters across the South, especially in Black communities devastated by COVID-19, should not be forced to choose between their health and their vote as the rest of the country moves forward, the lawmakers say.

“I am displeased with the fact that we’re going through these voter suppression measures, but I’m not surprised because I know the history,” Wendell Paris, Sr. said.

And if Blacks in Mississippi don’t educate themselves, Paris said history will repeat itself.

“We must understand what the voting process is and how it’s the most important thing we can do to advance our well-being,” he said. “We have to buy our own land, learn how to control our economic resources, create a social system to provide for the needs of our people and we must educate ourselves!”

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