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In partnership with The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights’ campaign, And Still, I Vote, mom and entrepreneur Tina Knowles-Lawson shared an open letter to Congress last Thursday urging officials to protect the voting rights of all registered voters, especially the Black and Brown communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.
The letter, addressed to the Senate Majority and Minority Leaders, is a call to action for the passing of the HEROES Act, a bill passed by the House of Representatives that would provide a $3 trillion safety net for those most impacted by COVID-19 through the provision of health care, economic security, justice system reform, housing, and voting access. Highlighting the fear evoked upon Black mothers across the country, the letter places emphasis on the acts of voter suppression that have occurred throughout primary elections.
The letter is signed by Black celebrities and mothers of the movement, including Knowles-Lawson, Viola Davis, Whoopi Goldberg, Octavia Spencer, Jada Pinkett Smith, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Solange Knowles, Gabrielle Union, Taraji P. Henson, Kelly Rowland, Lala Anthony, Halle Berry, Yvette Nicole Brown, Melina Matsoukas, Janelle Monáe, Bozoma Saint John, Holly Robinson Peete, Oge Egbuonu, Lena Waithe, Kerry Washington, and Rashida Jones.
Mothers of children who have been the faces of the Black Lives Matter movement also signed the letter, including Gwenn Carr (mother of Eric Garner), Kadiatou Diallo (mother of Amadou Diallo), Sybrina Fulton (mother of Trayvon Martin), Maria Hamilton (mother of Dontre Hamilton), Wanda Johnson (mother of Oscar Grant), Wanda Cooper Jones (mother of Ahmaud Arbery), Rep. Lucy McBath (mother of Jordan Davis), Tamika Palmer (mother of Breonna Taylor), and Geneva Reed-Veal (mother of Sandra Bland).
I had the opportunity to interview a few of the women to understand how they feel the letter will catalyze actionable change from local, state, and federal government officials. My interview with Tina Knowles-Lawson, Gwen Carr, Sybrina Fulton, and Leigh Chapman (voting rights director at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights) is below.
Christine Michel Carter: In your own words, why did you feel moved to now work with the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights?
Tina Knowles-Lawson: I felt led to work on the And I Still Vote campaign because I have been preaching its’ significance for years. I want to continue to spread the word. I understand how important voting is —particularly at the local level. I know that elections determine who makes decisions in our communities, from the local district attorney and the judges to the mayor who actually hires the police chief! Because Black voices have gone unheard for so long, we sometimes feel that no matter what we do, it won’t count at the end of the day. We have to change that! Having a say in who runs your local government is so important to our communities. On Tuesday in Kentucky, we were given a preview of just how real voter suppression is. I feel like it will be far worse in the fall.
Gwen Carr (mother of Eric Garner): I was motivated to get involved in politics after the death of my son and listening to so many unclear messages the elected officials were delivering. I decided to learn more about the politician that directly affected my community and me find out what role they played and how their position could be beneficial to me and my concerns. My biggest concern going into the 2020 election is to get everyone encouraged and involved in the voting process. There are so many ways that our vote is being restricted, it just discourages those who would vote, such as changing their polling locations, restricting the hours, waiting for periods of 45 days after registering, broken machines, and long lines. But through it all, we must get the message out that we must vote by any means necessary.
Carter: Why do you feel racism is being considered a “big problem” in this country today, vs. when you were of your children’s age?
Knowles-Lawson: By simply asking, ‘why am I being stopped, officer?’ situations often escalate, and the person ends up being arrested, abused, brutalized, or even killed. Every few years, we learn of more murders of Black men and women at the hands of the police (or like in Mr. Aubrey’s case, in the case of emboldened racists committing hate crimes). This is evidence that although time has progressed, not much in terms of justice has really changed. These things were constantly happening when I was my daughters’ age, and they are still happening today.
Leigh Chapman: The recent murder of George Floyd has sparked an awaking in our country, one that I haven’t seen before yet in my lifetime. Young people have always led movements for change in our country, and it is encouraging to see so many young advocates at the frontlines calling out the systemic racism that has targeted African Americans since the founding of our country.
Carter: As black mothers, you may be aware of the impact we have on federal elections. What change would you like to see occur, and the local and state level as well?
Sybrina Fulton (mother of Trayvon Martin): While many know me for the unjust shooting of my son, I am also the daughter of a police officer, giving me a unique understanding of the need for accountability in our communities across the country. There’s something about the power of Black mothers and how we’re prepared to transform pain into power at the polls on the ground. We need leadership against the epidemic of gun violence, and I have dedicated much of my adult life to speaking out on this very issue. Change starts from the ground up, and each of us has a responsibility to use our voice and be the change we wish to see in the world around us.
Chapman: Black women are the most powerful voting block in this country, and it is important that that power is not taken for granted, and that we are using our voice to leverage policy change at the local, state and federal levels. Using our collective power and voice, we can demand the change we want to see in our communities on issues that impact our families the most like affordable healthcare, economic security, and equal access to education. The first step to effecting change to make sure that every eligible voter can cast their ballot free from discrimination and undue obstacles.
Carter: The HEROES Act is a bill passed by the House of Representatives in May that would provide a three-trillion-dollar safety net for those most impacted by COVID-19, including disproportionately-impacted Black and Brown communities, through the provision of health care, economic security, justice system reform, housing, and voting access. Aside from voting access, what about the HEROES act speaks to you personally?
Knowles-Lawson: The HEROES Act impacts the issues that affect us. This funding would provide much-needed support for healthcare, economic security, justice system reform, and housing. These are all issues that are crucially significant to underserved communities and resources that are needed in the worst way. I mentor kids from South Central L.A., an under-resourced city filled with children of talent and promise. I know their needs. I know that their resources are extremely limited. I know how hard life is. This money could mean the world to those communities and make their lives better. It’s the duty of our country to provide resources for everyone, not simply pick and choose big businesses, or people that they feel beholden to.