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. Reverend Al Sharpton joins the conversation at 16 minutes.
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Jarvis Houston: We’re excited and grateful to welcome civil rights leader and voting rights advocate the Reverend Al Sharpton for our Barbershop Series. Since Reconstruction, Black people, Latino, and Indigenous people have not had the right to vote since 1865. 400 bills have been introduced in 48 states restricting us to have the right to vote. Let’s call it what it is, Reverend, it restricts access for Black people, brown people, Asian people, disabled people, and Indigenous to vote.
Many people don’t understand the significance of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 and what it means to us today. My grandfather and my great-grandparents fought for the Voting Rights Act. Your ancestors fought for the Voting Rights Act. What’s the significance of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and what does it mean to us today?
Reverend Al Sharpton: The 15th Amendment to the Constitution gave us, on paper, the right to vote. For a hundred years they restricted our right to vote. They said if you went in to vote in certain states – Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia – yeah, you had the right to vote but there were certain tests. There’s a jar of jelly beans, how many jelly beans are in the jar? Can’t answer it? You can’t vote. What’s the eighth president of the United States’ wife’s mother’s name? No? Can’t vote. They would use all kinds of gimmicks to prevent us from voting.
So the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which came as a result of movements: SNCC in Mississippi, SCLC and Dr. King [Jr.] with Amelia Boykin in Alabama, Gloria Richardson in North Carolina. The movement and the groundswell forced Congress to have to deal with voting rights.
There’s a story that Andrew Young tells about when Dr. King [Jr.] won the Nobel Peace Prize. When he came back from Norway, they went by the White House for President Johnson to congratulate Dr. King [Jr.] for winning. When they got through with the congratulations, Dr. King [Jr.] said, “I appreciate you giving us the Civil Rights Act, getting that signed last year.” This is early 1965. But, he said “we need the Voting Rights Act. We need to protect our rights and get all of these restrictive tests out the way.”
President Johnson said, “well I used all my currency, all my power to get the Civil Rights Act through, which dealt with public accommodations. I just don’t have the power to do it, Dr. King. I just don’t have anything left.” As they were leaving the White House Andrew Young says he looked back to King and said, “Dr. King, you heard what the President said?”
Dr. King nodded and said, “Yes I heard him.” Young said, “Well what are we going to do? He said he ain’t got the power.” Dr. King said, “We’re going back down South and get him some power.”
That’s why they started the movements. Jimmie Lee Jackson was killed in Marion, Alabama which started James Orange and some of them organized and ended up with the Selma March. What happened on that Pettus Bridge caught the world’s attention. Out of that, they got the Voting Rights Act in 1965. That Voting Rights Act was to protect our right to vote. It said that those states and counties, some weren’t in the South, two of them were in New York, they could not change the requirements to vote with any of these tests and other antics without pre-clearing it with the Justice Department. So a lot of people mistake the Voting Rights Act as giving us the right to vote. It protected our right to vote from angles.
Reverend Al Sharpton: In 2013, the Shelby vs. Holder case went in front of the Supreme Court. I was at the oral argument with Martin Luther King III. They ruled that the map that they use, using the states they cited and counties they cited, was outdated. That was 1965, you can in 2013 say that those districts and states were still prohibited. We want a new map. They wiped the map out, which meant that all of the states that have been listed could then start doing Voter ID and other schemes because they didn’t have to pre-clear it.
Congress was then supposed to come with a new map. What we are facing in 2021, because Congress controlled the majority, is to make the John Lewis Bill come, which puts a new map in. Which we think is all 50 states and stop them from what you talked about, the 400 laws that these states are coming up with. Because one federal law supersedes state’s rights [state law]. We live in a country where federal law is supreme.
That’s why we are organizing and mobilizing to get this bill through. We’re right where Johnson and King were. Biden can’t lead a movement. The movement comes to them. Johnson didn’t lead the movement for voting rights, he signed the bill. It has to come from the bottom up. That’s why we need to mobilize this. We’ve been in the streets, some have been doing rallies, some even get arrested; the Chairman of the Black Caucus. It will culminate on August 28th with a national march in Washington. Which is about 10 days before they come back with the John Lewis Bill. They need to see us in the streets like they were in the 60s.
Reverend Al Sharpton: Everything we want comes from voting. I don’t care when people tell me, well I’m not into politics I think we ought to do business. You can’t set a business up unless you get zoned in. Elected officials decide whether you’re in a business zone. Elected officials decide the clothes we wear, it has to clear the apparel assessment. Elected officials decide the food you eat; FDA – food and drug administration. So it is really a misunderstanding that you can be isolated from voting. Even reparations will be decided by the Senate in Congress. We’ve got to have the right to vote to get all the other things that we want, including the George Floyd Bill.
Ariana Rodriguez: It looks like Jarvis is having a few issues with his wifi. You are exactly, exactly right. We need this. Especially with the census dropping the results today. We know Republicans are going to, like they’ve always done, are going to gerrymander their way into winning. They don’t want us represented, they want to be in power. So I know there was a question in the chat that I wanted to ask you. What are activities that nonpolitical people can do, especially if they don’t live in the states? We are seeing a tax in Georgia, in Texas, in Florida. What would you say for someone not living in those states? How can they get involved? What can they do?
Reverend Al Sharpton: They must be part of the national drive [for voting rights]. August 28th, they can come to the march. They can go to www.nationalactionnetwork.net. If we can protest with thousands of people in the streets like we did last year with George Floyd. We had a march the same date, August 28th, the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, I Have A Dream. Martin Luther King III and I have corroborated, this march is going to start at Black Lives Matter Plaza. We’re not going to the Lincoln Memorial this year. We’re going to Black Lives Matter Plaza to march by the White House to the Capitol and have the rally right on the National Mall.
The world needs to see tens of thousands of people from every state coming out saying we must have voting rights protection, that’s one way. You can go to www.nationalactionnetwork.net.
Another way is that they can support those in other states. Let’s not forget what made the 1965 march work, is people came from all over the world and marched in Selma. People came from all over the world in Mississippi. So you don’t have to live in one of those states. You have to be willing to do the work wherever you are to make this a federal law. Because if you don’t stop it at the states it’s at, it will get to your state next.
Jarvis Houston: As Reverend Sharpton stated, you have to vote locally. Police budgets are decided by your city council members. Your Controller decides your budget. Your judge, if you see a judge, voting for a judge that decides whether you live or die. So, Reverend Sharpton, I know you are a minister, can you tell us about the significance of the Black Church and how it relates to voting rights and the Civil Rights Movement?
Reverend Al Sharpton: Well, the Black Church has always been a base for mobilizing since the days of the insurrections during slavery. Reverend Nat Turner, all the way through to Dr. King [Jr.] and beyond. The reason why is because the Black Church was the first and only institution black people control. We didn’t have to get anybody’s permission. We financed it. We were the heads of the church. We were the heads of the boards. So the Black Church is significant. It also operates from a moral principle that we believe in fighting for what’s right, not fighting for what’s expedient. We cannot just be guided by political interests and business interests. Those we need, but there must be values and moral values at that. We do not want to become like those we’re fighting. We want to be the alternative to it, to institute what is right.
Jarvis Houston: So Reverend Sharpton, we know Trump is out of office, but in four years he appointed three Supreme Court Justices. Justices that have gone on to dilute the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Do you think much has changed since Jim Crow for African Americans and people of color?
Reverend Al Sharpton: I think the change that we’ve seen in some ways has been, in many ways, walked back. Because he not only appointed three Supreme Court judges, he put 200 federal judges on the bench. We will be dealing with Trump appointees for decades. One of the reasons that the Right-wing did not get concerned about his reckless, embarrassing behavior is [because] he was doing their bidding; stacking the court, stacking the Supreme Court. So they didn’t care what he tweeted. They wanted to return to state’s rights. They wanted to return to what was pre- 1960s America. That’s what “Make America Great Again,” meant.
We must build a resistance. How did they build it? They started when Obama was president, where they grassroots movement in their community, the Tea Party. It went from there to “birtherism.” Out of “birtherism” emerged a demagogue named Donald Trump. We must build a grassroots movement around voting and around what is right.
Jarvis Houston: And as Reverend Sharpton said, I’m going to have one last question with Reverend Sharpton before you go, but we’re not here to speak about Instagram or social media. We’re here to talk about civil rights and voting rights that we have fought for over 156 years. Reverend Sharpton can you tell us a little bit before you go about the March on Voting Rights and why we all need to get together to support your march on August 28th with Martin Luther King III.
Reverend Al Sharpton: Martin Luther King III and I, along with a hundred organizations of all races, intergenerational from the NAACP to Urban League, all the way to Grassroots Group. We will start at McPherson Square Park which is on 15th and H in Washington. We’re gathering at eight in the morning, 10:30 we will march, as I said past Black Lives Matter Plaza. Past the White House and then start the rally at 11:30 in the National Mall with the backdrop of the Capitol. So when people see the march, they know that this is pointed not at remembering what happened in 1965 or 1963 at the march, but what we want to be done now. In that building, they must preserve our right to vote with the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.
Jarvis Houston: And as Reverend Sharpton stated, support the March On for Voting Rights on August 28th. John Lewis, Dr. Martin Luther King, and our dear brother Medgar Evers. Everyone on this call, your grandparents, your great grandparents, your ancestors fought for you to have the right to vote. You have the right to vote. I have the right to vote. Reverend Sharpton has the right to vote.
So until I can walk down the street, see a policeman and not be scared. That I can go to the bank and get a loan. That I can go to a hospital in a good neighborhood instead of going to a hospital in a bad neighborhood and risk dying, then we all have to have the right to vote. It’s important that we all work together to walk down the street one day so that we can feel safe no matter if we see a cop on the street or anyone else on the street. I’m really excited. Thank you Reverend Sharpton for joining us.
Reverend Al Sharpton: Well thank you Jarvis and like you said, all of us have to be together. It has to be intergenerational, interracial, which is why as you look at the screen you see a togetherness because Jarvis and I represent the two extremes of Black hairstyles in the barbershop.
Jarvis Houston: We do have the two extremes of Black hairstyles. So support Reverend Sharpton, like him, exercise every day. Support healthy eating and healthy living and support the march on Washington because we all have the right to vote. Thank you, Reverend Sharpton.
Reverend Al Sharpton: Thank you, bless you.
Jarvis Houston: Bye-bye sir. Thank you, everyone.