Black churches mobilizing voters despite virus challenges

NEW YORK (AP) - Rev. Jimmy Gates Sr. saw the 2008 presidential election year as a memorable one - and not just because it produced a historic result when the nation elected its first black president.
The pastor of Zion Hill Baptist Church in Cleveland recalls how he and his ward rode in a caravan of jam-packed buses, vans, and cars to the city's polling office on the last Sunday of the pre-general election election and joined a line of voters who seemed to stretch a mile.
"What a sight," said Gates. "Seniors, middle-aged people, young people."
In recent election cycles, black parishes across the country have launched campaigns commonly known as “souls for the election”. To counter racial votes to suppress voters dating back to Jim Crow's time, early voting in the black community is being emphasized almost as much from the pulpits as it is from the candidates seeking their support.
However, the mobilization of voters in black parishes will look very different in 2020, in large part due to the coronavirus pandemic that has infected millions in the US and disproportionately burdened Black America.
The churches have organized socially distant caravans with greatly reduced transport capacities for early voting and voting on election day. Church volunteers make phone calls and search their members' homes to ensure that postal ballot and postal ballot papers are requested and hand delivered to polling stations or drop boxes before deadlines.
However, public relations have been complicated as many churches have practically been holding services for months and some have only recently resumed services in person.
Black Voters Matter, a national constituency organized in 15 states, seeks to help churches help people who are counting on a “souls to the polls” trip on or before election day.
"It's not about whether there are enough votes out there," said Cliff Albright, co-founder of the group. "It's about whether we have the strategy, the resources and the electoral security to make sure that it is the voters who want to show up." actually being able to do so and be counted. "
The Associated Press interviewed pastors, parishioners, and voting representatives across the country to get a sense of what impact efforts to mobilize black voters would do during a deadly pandemic when blacks were disproportionately affected by virus-related layoffs and issues of systemic racism are in the foreground of the mind.
Black Americans have unemployment rates far higher than the national average and the highest COVID-19 death rate of any racial group.
The turbulence of 2020 and fears of catching the coronavirus could depress turnout even among reliable segments of black voters, proponents say. This year's voter mobilization must therefore be successful at a level that was not seen in 2016 compared to 2008 and 2012, Gates said.
"We have to vote as if our lives depend on it," he said. “Yes, we know that God cares for us and meets all of our needs. But God gave us the will to do what is right. You didn't listen to us in 2016. So my thing is do you hear me now? "
Some pastors say the coast-to-coast unrest following the black American murders this year has motivated their churches. In Minneapolis, where a white officer held his knee to George Floyd, voters want law enforcement reform, said Bishop Divar L. Bryant Kemp, pastor of New Mount Calvary Baptist Church in northern Minneapolis.
"I tell people all the time, 'Don't talk to me about what needs to be changed if you haven't voted to change it," he said.
The challenge for Kemp will be to get voters to vote safely. A church bus used in previous elections recently broke down.
Kemp also understands pandemic risks all too well. He contracted COVID-19 in July and was hospitalized for five days, which forced him to stay away from his church for three weeks.
"We considered renting a van to get them to vote, but either way we're going to," said Kemp.
"Souls to the polls" as an idea goes back to the civil rights movement. Rev. George Lee, a Black Mississippi businessman, was murdered by white supremacists in 1955 after helping nearly 100 black residents register in the city to vote for Belzoni. The cemetery where Lee is buried served as a polling station.
"There was a statement he once made for voting rights:" Don't cry for my mother and father. You are already gone. You must cry for your children who will come with you, ”said Wardell Walton, Belzoni's first black mayor, who served between 2005 and 2013.
Lee's memory should "inspire us to keep moving forward despite the obstacles," said Walton, 70.
In the US, early voting rules vary from state to state, but begin an average of 22 days before the election for the vast majority of eligible voters in October, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Initial signs suggest that black voters do indeed intend to cast a vote this year. Steady traffic at early polling stations in states like Ohio and heavy ballot return in North Carolina, Georgia, and elsewhere indicate a high-energy black electorate.
Even without the hurdles of a pandemic, electoral repression is a stubborn election year for black Americans. The civil rights movement led the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that outlawed racial discrimination in votes.
Despite the law, efforts to thwart minority voting required constant vigilance. In some states, repression worsened following a 2013 Supreme Court ruling that gutted part of the law requiring states with racially discriminatory voting rules to seek federal approval before changing electoral laws.
Ahead of the 2012 general election, Republican-controlled lawmakers and local government elections have placed limits on the early voting periods on which campaigns are based.
Now, some black Americans are concerned about President Donald Trump's false claims of widespread inbox electoral fraud and reported problems with mail delivery within the U.S. Postal Service. Proponents have vetoed the president's recent call to his most ardent supporters to monitor election day elections in an attempt to intimidate voters in the black community, despite Trump denying it.
Jane Bonner, a 53-year-old health administrator who attends the church at the Walk of Faith Cathedral in Austell, west of Atlanta, said her 91-year-old parents may recall their own experiences with disenfranchisement. Her mother was denied voter registration when she was unable to tell the registrar "how many days, hours and minutes until her next birthday," she said.
"I am now more determined than ever to take part in the elections and cast my vote in person instead of by post," said Bonner.
Keith White, director of social justice initiatives at the Christian Cultural Center, has petitioned New York election officials to use his largely black church in Brooklyn as a polling station. Whether it does or not, the church will use its van and charter bus to transport early voters through election day, he said.
"People are concerned about this choice and the potential implications for our children's futures," White said. “People will be up early. I don't think they will wait until the last day before election day. "
Associate press writers Skip Foreman of Winston-Salem, North Carolina and Mohamed Ibrahim of Minneapolis contributed to this report. New York news researcher Jennifer Farrar also contributed.
Morrison is a member of the AP's Race and Ethnicity team. Follow him on Twitter:
Associated Press religion coverage is supported by the Lilly Endowment through the Religion News Foundation. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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