Atlanta (AP) – Black church leaders and activists in Georgia rallied Sunday in a push to get congregants to vote – a longstanding tradition known as “souls to the polls” that is taking on greater meaning this year amid new obstacles to casting a ballot in the midterm elections.
At Rainbow Baptist Church just outside Atlanta, about two dozen cars and a large bus emblazoned with the image of civil rights icon John Lewis formed a caravan in the parking lot. Teresa Hardy, an organizer with voting rights group The Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda, led a prayer before the caravan set out for a polling site at a nearby mall.
Few people in the group actually cast a ballot there, but organizers said it was important to promote voting, particularly in the wake of new restrictions enacted by the state Legislature.
“Your rights are being taken away,” said Comarkco Blackett, a minister at Rainbow Baptist. “We have to get out, stand together across color boundaries.”
State lawmakers nearly did away with Sunday voting under a bill signed into law last year. The Republican-sponsored legislation followed former President Donald Trump’s false claims that voter fraud cost him reelection in 2020.
Though lawmakers backed off the Sunday voting ban, the bill shortened the time to request a mail ballot, rolled back the COVID-19 pandemic driven expansion of ballot drop boxes, reduced early voting before runoff elections and prohibited groups from handing out food and water to voters in line.
Republicans said Georgia’s new law was necessary to restore confidence in the state’s election system. Civil rights advocates saw it as an attack on Black voters, who helped Democrats win the presidential contest in Georgia in 2020 for the first time since 1992 and later take the state’s two U.S. Senate seats. They are pushing back by redoubling efforts to turn out Black voters.
“No matter what barriers they try to put in place, we’re going to find a way for our people to get around those barriers so they can actually exercise their right to vote,” said Helen Butler, executive director of the People’s Agenda.
Sunday’s caravan ended at a strip mall, where several dozen people held signs encouraging passersby to vote. Georgia has experienced a significant jump in turnout during early voting, which runs through Nov. 4. As of Friday morning, more than 1.25 million voters had cast ballots in person, according to the secretary of state’s office, a jump of more than 50 percent from the 2018 midterm contest.
“Our ancestors fought far harder than we’re fighting,” said Rhonda Taylor, a leader in the AME Church in Atlanta who participated in Sunday’s rally. “We got to keep going.” U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta who is facing reelection in November, attended a separate “souls to the polls” event at a church in Atlanta.
“Souls to the polls” reflects the Black church’s central role in the fight for justice and freedom in the U.S., said W. Franklyn Richardson, chairman of the board of trustees of the Conference of National Black Churches.
Richardson said efforts like it are particularly critical this election cycle.
“It’s the cumulative accomplishment of our people that is being challenged and threatened that makes this such an urgent election,” he said.
The idea for “souls to the polls” goes back to the civil rights movement. The Rev. George Lee, a Black Mississippi entrepreneur, was assassinated by white supremacists in 1955 after he helped nearly 100 Black residents register to vote in the town of Belzoni.
It reflects a larger effort in the Black community to leverage the church for voting rights, said Dartmouth history professor Matthew Delmont.
In addition to motivating potential voters, pastors provide the “logistical support to get people to go directly from church service to go to vote,” he said.
Fields reported from Washington.