by Ravi Howard
Originally published on thearticle.com
In 2002, the quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend, a small town in Alabama, became a sensation in the art world. The Whitney Museum and the Corcoran Gallery of Art showed their works, and the quilters and their designs were featured by American media. “Imagine Matisse and Klee (if you think I’m wildly exaggerating, see the show) arising not from rarefied Europe, but from the caramel soil of the rural South in the form of women, descendants of slaves when Gee’s Bend was a plantation,” wrote Michael Kimmelman in The New York Times.
Attention and due praise highlighted this group of artists from Gee’s Bend, also known as Boykin, with a population of roughly 300 people. The backstory of their hometown was a profile of American voter suppression.
The quilting collective became one of the few outlets for a remote community with few resources. The isolation of Gee’s Bend that created such cohesion in their art world was designed to disenfranchise. In 1962, the black residents wanted to register and vote, and their only reliable way across the Alabama River into Camden, the Wilcox County seat, was the ferry. The effort to suppress them was simple. The local government ended ferry service. The other option was a car trip on the town’s one road to a distant bridge and into town. This tactic stopped the people of Gee’s Bend from voting and from attending the schools. On paper, the schools were desegregated and voter registration available to the Gee’s Bend community, but the empty river told the true story.
In his 1957 speech, “Give Us the Ballot”, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said “all types of conniving methods are still being used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters. The denial of this sacred right is a tragic betrayal of the highest mandates of our democratic tradition.”
The missing ferry on the Alabama River has many modern-day parallels. Just over four months from the 2020 presidential election, the simple math of voter suppression remains intact — subtract necessary infrastructure and add obstacles. While Russian interference remains a threat, most efforts to suppress the vote in America are homegrown.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was designed to end the conniving, but the 2013 Shelby v. Holder decision ended the requirement that states and districts with a history of discrimination get permission to make changes to voting requirements. Among the preclearance states were Georgia, where then Secretary of State Brian Kemp, a Republican, purged over 300,000 voters in 2017. A year later, Kemp became governor. His margin of victory — 54,000 votes.
Beyond the wholesale purges of registration rolls, voter ID laws are easily manipulated to target young voters and people of color. Texas has one of the most restrictive policies, where a state-issued college ID is not valid, but a state-issued gun license is allowed. In 2019, a federal judge temporarily halted North Carolina’s voter ID law because it targeted certain districts. An earlier attempt in 2013 was rejected by the Fourth Circuit of the US Court of Appeals in a ruling that said the law targeted African-Americans with “almost surgical precision.”
The final obstacles are the polling places with waits and technical problems that, especially during a pandemic, create anger, health risks, and frustration around a process that should be protected. Last Tuesday, Jefferson County, Kentucky, including the state’s largest city, Louisville, had one polling location for 600,000 people. Videos posted on Tuesday evening showed voters locked out despite being in line before the polls closed.
In his 1957 voting rights speech in Washington, King spoke of the “disinherited,” and the term fits the suppression that, in the aftermath of the Shelby decision, will continue. Voter fraud is largely a myth. Voter suppression is a reality that has left so many communities as isolated as the government of Wilcox County left the people of Gee’s Bend.
The best defense against voter suppression and the threat of coronavirus, is mail-in voting, a provision that gave so many Kentuckians access despite the closing of thousands of polling places. Regardless of age, race, gender identity or political belief, the USPS will deliver a ballot in states that have approved the practice. President Trump has railed against the voting by mail for a reason. For the price of postage, each voter has equal access to the franchise.
After the Whitney and the Corcoran Gallery of Art exhibitions, the quilters of Gee’s Bend received what was arguably their highest honor. The United States Postal Service issued a series of stamps featuring their fabric art. For the price of first-class postage, their work was accessible, and this simple transaction was built on equal opportunity.
The lone road out of Gee’s Bend likely brought the mail if nothing else, so the mail was one remedy for the absent ferry and the far-away bridge. The Brennan Center for Justice estimates that nearly 80 percent of Americans want a mail-in option. The journey to a polling place can be as simple as a stamped envelope, no more and no less for every American. Congress can support this through additional stimulus funding to states, helping to ensure that the new era of disinheritance and isolation ends.