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Activists Head To D.C. To Protect Voting Rights In Modern Freedom Ride

NOEL KING, HOST:

As some states pass laws to restrict voting, Black voting rights activists are fighting back with tactics reminiscent of the civil rights movement. Here's NPR's Debbie Elliott.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Sixty years after John Lewis and other civil rights activists set out on Freedom Rides to desegregate buses, a new generation is mounting a modern Freedom Ride...

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLE HONKING)

ELLIOTT: ...Not for desegregation, but for protecting the right to vote.

CLIFF ALBRIGHT: So we're going to D.C. to tell them that we want our voting rights now.

ELLIOTT: This week in Atlanta, buses emblazoned with images of the original Freedom Riders pulled up at historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, part of the Martin Luther King Jr. national historic site. It's a symbolic stop on a journey through the South that ends in the nation's capital Saturday.

ALBRIGHT: When I say Black voters, you say matter. Black voters...

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Matter.

ALBRIGHT: Black voters...

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Matter.

ELLIOTT: That's Cliff Albright, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, the group behind the campaign, which includes labor and other organizers. At each stop, there are teach-ins aimed at helping local activists learn about the sacrifices, strategies and successes of the civil rights movement. Albright says it takes a grassroots mobilization to force change.

ALBRIGHT: We are in the business of making possible that which everybody else thinks is impossible. That's the legacy of our history, and that's what we're trying to do.

ELLIOTT: Georgia, where Black Voters Matter is based, has been at the center of the debate over voting rights ever since the state flipped and voted for Democrat Joe Biden for president and, in hotly contested runoffs, elected two new Democratic senators, giving Democrats control of the U.S. Senate. Tight margins led to recounts, unproven allegations of fraud and multiple lawsuits, some of which are ongoing. It was a cycle that saw unprecedented voter turnout and, in a pandemic, a surge of mail-in absentee ballots. In response, Georgia's Republican-controlled legislature passed a sweeping, new voting law. Among the changes are new rules for absentee voting that will now require a state ID number and a shortened time frame for voting by mail. It also added a day of early voting, made drop boxes available only indoors and give state officials more control over county election boards. At the Atlanta rally, local activists see the new law as a backlash to Black voting power and an attempt to marginalize minority voters.

JAMAL HARRISON BRYANT: Georgia is now ground zero for the fight for democracy.

ELLIOTT: The Reverend Jamal Harrison Bryant is pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Stonecrest, Ga.

BRYANT: These voter suppression laws are not about voter fraud. It's about voter turnout. And African Americans and young African Americans came out in such an amazing way that it flipped the state. And as a consequence, they're trying to take measures to reclaim it.

MARTHA ZOLLER: I don't think having a secure election is suppressing anybody.

ELLIOTT: Martha Zoller is a conservative political analyst and talk show host in Gainesville, Ga.

ZOLLER: I think you want to know that you are the only person that's voting with your name.

ELLIOTT: Zoller is a former aide to Republican Senator David Perdue and Governor Brian Kemp. Kemp rejects the notion that Georgia's election overhaul is the new Jim Crow. Zoller says if anything, Republican votes are the ones being suppressed by the ongoing allegations of fraud pushed by former President Trump and his allies.

ZOLLER: You can't on the one hand say get out to vote, but your vote won't count. That was the message that was being given to voters and especially by the president. It was an inconsistent message. And some people just threw their hands up and said, I'm not going to vote.

ELLIOTT: Georgia may have been among the first with its election law, but it's not alone. Now at least 14 states have passed new voting restrictions. Election attorney Jake Evans is president of the Georgia chapter of the Republican National Lawyers Association. He says states routinely update their voting rules.

JAKE EVANS: There is this whole false rhetoric or narrative that it was passed because Republicans didn't win. We pass election bills every couple years. I mean, it's an ongoing system of improvement.

ELLIOTT: Evans says the sheer volume of mail-in ballots cast in Georgia because of the pandemic prompted lawmakers to take a closer look at how to make absentee voting more secure.

EVANS: If you go vote in person, you have to show your driver's license or some other form of government identification. If you go vote absentee, all you have to do is write down an identification number. I don't know how, given that to buy a drink, to fly - get on an airplane, you have to show it - that can be interpreted as somehow suppressing the vote or in any way attempting to suppress the vote.

ELLIOTT: Georgia's election overhaul is now in the courts. Civil rights groups, including the NAACP and the Black Voters Matter Fund have sued to block it. The groups are also pressuring corporate America and professional sports to push back against restrictive voting measures and lobbying Congress to pass new voting rights protections.

LATOSHA BROWN: Come on, y'all. Get on the freedom train.

ELLIOTT: At the Atlanta rally, Black Voters Matter co-founder LaTosha Brown says they won't relent until there's free and open access to the ballot.

BROWN: If it was up to us just seeing what was hope and what was faith, our people still would be enslaved. Yet here we stand. And so we're going to continue. We're going to have voting rights in this country. We are going to make democracy be real.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing) Load 'em up, move 'em out, move 'em out, roll on.

ELLIOTT: The Black Lives Matter buses arrive for a rally at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., tomorrow. Brown says these Freedom Riders hope to pierce the consciousness of the nation once again.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Atlanta.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBERT GLASPER TRIO'S "59 SOUTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.