View this post on Instagram
This is a transcript of an interview with Sister District Organizing and Political Director Jarvis Houston that originally appeared on Instagram Live. Remarks have been edited for clarity and brevity. To watch the full video, view it on Sister District Instagram.
Jarvis Houston: Today, we’re diving into the history of voting rights: what has changed, and how we can empower others to use their voices at the polls. This is an important issue that has faced us for the past 400 years.
From long waits in line to long drives to polling locations, voting in America has historically left out our ancestors, and unfortunately, today in 2021, it’s leaving us out as well. I’m thinking specifically of the decision to change the voting laws in the state of Georgia, and the Supreme Court decision in Arizona. These laws are happening in 2021. The same kinds of laws that were implemented in 1865, in 1920, in 1940, and in 1960 are still happening today.
This is about our great, great, great-granddaughters and great, great, great-grandsons, and rewriting history that has hurt us. Our ancestors fought to give us the right to vote. We have lost lives for the right to vote.
So I’m here with my brother, pastor, community activist, and Delegate from Virginia Joshua Cole to speak about voting rights, the great things that he has done in Virginia in the past two years, and how we can move forward and take forward steps into 2021, 22, 24 and beyond.
Now, Delegate Cole, I have a couple questions for you as we move along, and I’m high energy because this issue is very important to me personally. It’s very important to us as a people.
My first question for you is: what is the significance of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 and what does the recent ruling in Arizona mean?
Delegate Cole: I’m a big history buff, and I love studying history. When I was in college, we had this office that sat in the middle of the campus. It was an old historical house, and it was the office of the president. When I did my research, I found out it was called the Carter Glass Mansion.
Turns out Carter Glass was a long-serving U.S. Senator from Virginia. Most people would just tell you that he was the one who created the FDIC. What they don’t tell you is that in the 1920s, he’s the one that implemented poll taxes throughout the entire United States. Here we and the president’s office was in a racist Democrat’s house, and they celebrated that.
One of the things that we look at is how Dr. Martin Luther King and the other people in the civil rights movement advocated from the 50’s into the 60’s. When he gave that speech on the Mall to “cash a check,” he said Black people have been cashing a check, and it’s been bouncing. He said, “We refuse to believe that justice is bankrupt for our people.”
The civil rights leaders said, “We just want to be treated properly. We want to have rights. We want to have voting rights.” So in 1965, LBJ and Congress gave us the Voting Rights Act. This is basically stating that no one can be discriminated against at the polling booth, regardless of who they are, what they look like and where they come from. We’ve seen over the years that they have been chipping away at the VRA with different Supreme Court cases.
Jarvis Houston: Little by little.
Delegate Cole: We’ve done a great job in Virginia by implementing legislation. We’re the first Southern state to create a state Voting Rights Act; shout-out to my sis, Delegate Marcia Price from Newport News, who created it with help from Senator Jennifer McClellan.
We were going through committee meetings and hearing arguments about why we should establish a state-level Voting Rights Act, just as all of these things were happening in Georgia, Texas, and Louisiana. Well, we passed the Virginia Voting Rights Act. It went into effect on July 1, 2021, just as the Supreme Court was gutting the federal Voting Rights Act and ruling on the side of the discriminatory Arizona laws.
I heard one politician say, “You know, we can be Americans, and we can be Black, but it’s sad that as Black folks, our voting rights only comes as an amendment to the Constitution.”
There are people who will say that to be African-American is to be African with no memory. We have all of these things that are coming up against us, and we still have to fight. We still have to do great work to make sure that we’re protected.
Jarvis Houston: I’d like to speak to you now as Pastor Cole. The civil rights movement really started in the Black church, first in Georgia and South Carolina, and then moved up to the north. Can you talk to us about the significance of the Black church and how it relates to the civil rights movement?
Delegate Cole: Those of us who are faith leaders, regardless of what your faith background is, have to think about what we call a “civic sacrament.” For those of us who come from a Christian background, we know sacraments are those things that bring us closer to God, where we experience grace.
By voting, we literally take the hand of God when we go and vote.
Back in the 1940’s, 50’s, and 60’s, if you wanted to run for office, you didn’t make a decision until you came through the church. They would pray for you, they would give you encouragement. Then they would say, all right, go ahead and run because we believe God has your back.
In the 70’s, after the Voting Rights Act, Black folks finally started getting elected. But they wouldn’t run for office until they talked to a pastor. The pastor would put his seal of approval on this individual and say, “This is the man or the woman who’s going to work for us. We need you to get them elected.”
Over time, Black pastors were increasingly marginalized and muzzled. Now in today’s society, white conservative pastors will stand across the pulpit and endorse politicians, but Black pastors won’t say anything.
It used to be that you’d go to church on Sunday, get your chicken dinner or your fish sandwich, and then you’d take other folks and you’d go vote. That was a bastion for getting the Black community out to vote.
We heard one Senator from Mississippi state that, “I don’t believe people should be able to vote on Sunday because Sunday is the Sabbath and you’re not supposed to work on Sunday.” Well… Number one, Senator, Saturday is the Sabbath!
Jarvis Houston: Pastor, take us to church!
Delegate Cole: And number two, voting is a civic sacrament. This is how we exercise our rights. Separation of church and state does not mean that religious people can’t get involved. It means that the federal government or the state government can’t tell people which religion to follow.
Faith without works is dead. There’s an African proverb: “Pray with your feet.” Pray about it, talk about it, then do it too.
Jarvis Houston: Coming with the African proverb! Go on, pastor!
I’d be remiss if I didn’t speak about what Trump has done over the last four years. He might be out of office, and President Biden has executive orders, but we will never be completely rid of Trump.
In four years, Trump appointed three Supreme Court justices. Justices that have gone on to even further dilute our Voter Rights Act.
Firstly, let’s go back to history. In Mississippi, Black men could vote after reconstruction. 90% of black men were registered to vote after reconstruction in 1892. But by 1940, 3% of African-American men were registered to vote in the state of Mississippi. It went from 90 to 3%, because of racism, poll taxes.
Now let’s speak about the importance of voting locally. In the past two years, Virginia expanded voting rights, raised the minimum wage, abolished the death penalty and allowed local governments to remove racist Confederate statutes all over the state of Virginia. That’s what happened in two years because we had a Democratic majority in the state of Virginia.
So please tell us, why is it important to vote locally?
Delegate Cole: When I’m talking with young folks or people in the community, I share two sentiments. I say: “if your vote didn’t matter, they wouldn’t fight so hard to take it away.”
I also say, “You may not care about politics, but your landlord cares, and that’s how they keep your rent high. You may not care about politics, but your insurance does. That’s how they keep your premiums high. You may not care about politics, but your job does, and that’s how they keep your pay low.”
As Black folks, people of color, we typically don’t see candidates that look like us. We don’t see candidates that speak to our story. And then when we do vote for the party that says they’re looking out for us, they get into office and they forget about us. They don’t pass the laws that they said they were going to pass.
But we also don’t understand that it’s not that they won’t pass laws; it’s that we don’t have the power in the city council, on the board of supervisors, on the school board, in the House of Delegates, or in the state Senate to get the laws passed because we didn’t show up to vote enough.
When you go out to vote in your city council elections, it’s determining what jobs are brought to your area. It’s determining what communities get built in your area, what schools are being built there. How many traffic lights? What money is being diverted to public transportation? When you vote for the House of Delegates or the state Assemblyman, or the state Senator in your state, you’re voting for what federal dollars are sent to the state, and then dispersed to your communities.
For example, we legalized marijuana. We need to come back and re-sentence those who are still locked up.
We also need to make sure that we’re pushing for affordable housing. We raised the state minimum wage, but we still have to make sure that hourly workers are getting paid sick leave. These are all different types of things that we have control over in the General Assembly, on the Board of Supervisors, on your local town council.
In my county, we have people on city council, on the town council, on the board of supervisors who are literally the “good old boy” network, and when the federal bailout money was sent down, the board of supervisors just gave money to their best friends and their businesses. We had businesses that were really hurting, who really needed the money, and they missed out.
Jarvis Houston: That’s how it goes.
Delegate Cole: The House of Delegates and the Senate are also the ones who appoint the judges in Virginia.
What was happening? A brother or sister of a state delegate would get appointed to the bench, or the best friend or someone who went to college with a Delegate or a Senator got appointed to the bench. We had the whitest judiciary in the United States. Until Democrats won the majority and we started making demands to see women on the bench, Black folks on the bench, LGBTQIA, AAPI people on the bench. We wanted to see the bench reflect the Commonwealth of Virginia. That’s what happens when you show up and vote.
I want people to understand that by saying your vote doesn’t matter, or I’m only voting on the midterms, or I’m only voting in the presidential elections… That’s a narrative that the other side wants you to buy into, because maybe one side or the other will win the presidency, but we will never win state houses.
We’ll never win state Senate districts, because they gerrymandered and carved those districts up when they did Project REDMAP back in 2010. They now have control of states, and it’s going to be so hard to get up out of this.
Jarvis Houston: I’m going to end this with a very important question, Delegate. Do you think much has changed since Jim Crow for African-Americans? And what can we do to change that?
Delegate Cole: There have obviously been some changes and I think people can get caught up on what has changed on the surface. We can run for office now, I can use the same bathroom as a white person. We can go to the same school.
But people still deny the systemic racism that is ingrained in the culture of America. We have to make sure that we have Black leaders, AAPI, Latinx leaders, Native leaders. We know what it’s like to try and go to the bank and get a high interest rate, while our friend that is white just went in and got a good interest rate. Or when we go to apply for a housing loan, while they direct us to a specific area and other people don’t get directed to that area. We know the struggle.
If we run for office, or if we become policy writers, we begin to change the law. We begin to restitch and reshape the fabric of America by being there and being present. It requires each and each and every one of us to get involved.
Listen, you don’t have to run for office. You can be a lobbyist, you can be a policy writer. You can be someone that talks with the politicians about how to create the legislation. You could be a chief of staff or an administrative assistant who has the ability to speak directly to your Delegate or state Senator and help reshape their mind. We need people to be involved at every level.
On the surface, a lot has changed since the Jim Crow days, but in the essence of things, nothing has changed.
Jarvis Houston: Correct.
Joshua Cole: During the 2016 presidential election, my grandmother, who has dementia, was watching some of the debates and the news. She kept saying, “No, no, no, no, no, no.”
And I said, “Granny, what’s the matter?” She said, “Now I know we’re not back in the day, but what they’re talking about sounds like back in the day.”
It’s amazing that my grandmother with dementia could recognize that time and history is cyclical.
If we don’t understand our history, and if we don’t repair it, we are going to be doomed to repeat it.
Right now we see all these Black folks, people of color, LGBTQIA people, rising up and getting elected to office. But we also see the GOP in their final death throes, and they’re trying to do every last thing they can to hold onto those old school beliefs.
If we don’t stay vigilant, if we don’t stay aware, if we don’t stay woke and do what we’re supposed to do. They have just enough power to put it into play and put it into law to last us at least another 50 years.
Jarvis Houston: You’re so right about systemic racism. I grew up in the inner city of Chicago, where every school in my neighborhood was a school to prison pipeline.
We had the worst hospitals in the city. You go in with a broken arm, you come out in a body bag.
My mom finally bumped me to a really good white school. I got in trouble one time, and they tried to make me a special education student based on my behavior.
My mother said, “Hell no, my son’s the smartest guy in his class it ain’t happening!” Two years later I jumped grades. Your life should not be decided by your zip code.
So again, thank you, Delegate Cole and I encourage everyone to donate to your campaign and to volunteer.
Delegate Cole: Thank you all for having me on today.