Mass D.C. rally speakers: Freedom Riders intensify voting rights drive
Unite Here members from New Haven, Conn. and around the country converged on D.C. as part of the Freedom Ride. Seen here are Rev. Scott Marks (far left) of New Haven Rising and Local 34 leader Crystal Bates (third from left) among those leading the march. | Ken Suzuki / Unite Here Local 34

WASHINGTON (PAI)—Facing a sea of red-shirted Unite Here Freedom Riders, speakers at a mass D.C. rally urged them—and the rest of the country—to step up the pressure on Congress to ensure and restore full voting rights for the entire nation, and especially for people of color whom Republicans want to rob of the right to vote.

The crowd cheered that cause and was unfazed by a setback earlier in the week. That’s when all 50 Republicans in the evenly split U.S. Senate voted, successfully, to prevent even the start of debate on the main election reform bill, the For the People Act.

Black Voters Matter via Twitter

Instead, the Black Voters Matter campaigners of all races and genders who traveled on multiple buses from Arizona and from the Deep South to D.C. vowed to take the cause to lawmakers during and after the July 4 congressional recess.

“It pisses me off that we have to stand here for such a cause” decades after the Civil Rights movement and after the Voting Rights Act became law in 1965,” said first-year Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo.

“We’re making it plain that we see their voter suppression for what it is: White supremacist tyranny,” added Bush, the first Black Lives Matter organizer elected to Congress.

“They were sending a message: ‘We won’t even discuss voting rights,’” Melody Campbell of the Black Women’s Roundtable said of the GOP senators in her speech to the crowd. “What are we gonna do? We’re gonna fight.

“We’re gonna keep organizing because we built this country and we own it.”

“Today is the start of a day of reckoning,” Akosua Ali, president of the D.C. branch of the NAACP, told the crowd. “The day for repressing Black people is over.”

The For the People Act (S1/HR1) would strengthen and expand ways to vote nationwide, by enacting same-day voter registration, making Election Day a national holiday, mandating absentee and mail-in voting for all who want it, and outlawing the wide range of voter repression measures that have either passed or are roaring through GOP-dominated “red state” legislatures.

It also would outlaw the partisan gerrymandering that aids the repression and mandate disclosure of the sources of “dark money” that capitalist forces use to control elections and drown out the rest of the country during campaigns, among other moves.

One big banner made that point: “Get corporate money out of politics! Pass the For the People Act!” it read.

But the For the People Act wasn’t the only cause the several thousand people gathered in sweltering Saturday heat on the National Mall rallied for. Another was the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which would reverse the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County ruling gutting the key enforcement provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The third was statehood for D.C., whose estimated 700,000-plus residents have no voting representation in Congress. D.C. is majority people of color.

“We deserve statehood, and we will not get it from the insurrectionists,” one D.C. LGBTQ activist orated, referring to the GOP Trumpites who invaded the Capitol on Jan. 6. The Capitol was the backdrop for the march.

Some march participants had other causes. One Native American group discussed freeing Leonard Peltier. A group carrying a banner for the New York City Hotel Trades Council was concerned not just about votes, but about jobs.

Unite Here Local 30 via Twitter

Though the city and the country are reopening following the apparent retreat of the coronavirus pandemic, hotel workers nationwide, including Unite Here members, still haven’t been called back.

“We need our jobs back,” said Hilda Alvarez, a former worker at the Park Hyatt in Manhattan. “I don’t know what they’re waiting for.” And even though there are no racist voter suppression laws in her neighborhood, Crown Heights, said Teresa Cruz, “there are always long lines and we face issues with the (voting) machines not working.”

Random participants interviewed during the march indicated they’d take the voting rights message back home and keep pounding away at it until Congress passes the legislation. The Rev. Gary Bernard Williams of Los Angeles was typical.

“It’s been a wonderful experience to be here pushing back against voter suppression,” said Williams, pastor of St. Mark L.A. United Methodist Church in Los Angeles, who, with his wife, was on the Freedom Ride bus—along with Unite Here Local 11 members from California—that started in Arizona.

He didn’t let up after the march: Williams said they planned to take a red-eye flight back to L.A. after it ended late Saturday afternoon so he could preach the same themes in his sermon the next day.

“I’m working in the church, pushing back versus division, and organizing campaigns for voting rights and human rights,” he said. “We stand on the shoulders of our ancestors. They fought and died for the right to vote.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.