North Carolina is considered by many to be the most serious battleground in the emerging national fight over voters’ rights. Since the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 overturned key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, 22 states have passed laws making it harder for certain groups to vote, with the impact felt most by people of color, poor people, and students. North Carolina has passed particularly severe laws hampering the ability of many to vote, activists say.
The North Carolina NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), under its president, the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, has led the fight in the state against voter suppression. UU congregations in North Carolina, including the two in Charlotte, are partnering with the NAACP, Democracy North Carolina, and other social justice groups on this issue, and All Souls—which has a “personal interest” in voting rights—joined in earlier this year.
“We immediately thought North Carolina was the place we wanted to work because of the outstanding leadership of the NAACP in North Carolina,” said the Rev. Dr. Robert M. Hardies, senior minister at All Souls, one of the largest UU congregations in the country. “They’ve pulled together a coalition that’s really special in its diversity and breadth.”
In addition, UU congregations in North Carolina have been very active in supporting the Moral Mondays efforts of the NAACP (see “1,500 Unitarian Universalists Join Huge N.C. March,” 2.17.14), including the UU Church of Charlotte, said its minister, Rev. James C. (Jay) Leach.
“We talk in our principles about our commitment to democracy; that’s ultimately what this is about,” said Leach. “What we’ve experienced in North Carolina—as a lot of places have too—is clearly an effort at voter suppression.” For UUs, he continued, this is offensive not just as a social and political issue but also on a religious level. Working to register voters, he said, “is one more way to put liberal religious values into action in our community, and we’ll put a face on that by advocating broad access to voting while still challenging voter suppression legislation.”
The Unitarian Universalist Association is ramping up its efforts in this area, said Susan Leslie, Congregational Advocacy and Witness director, and is encouraging UUs from states that don’t have repressive voting laws to assist those in states that do.
Hardies said All Souls “wanted to work in solidarity with the NAACP and our UU brothers and sisters in North Carolina because they’re suffering from some of the worst voter [suppression] laws in the country right now.”
In addition to traveling to Charlotte next weekend, All Souls congregants are participating in an ongoing phone bank to encourage voters considered particularly vulnerable to the new restrictions to register and vote, he said. “We’re trying to get them aware of what their rights are and how they’ll be able to vote in this  election because there has been a lot of misinformation on what it will take to vote in North Carolina, who can or can’t vote,” said Hardies. “We want to educate them and encourage them to vote.”
For All Souls, the issue of voting rights is deeply personal, said Hardies. In 1965, the church’s associate minister, the Rev. James Reeb, was bludgeoned to death in Selma, Ala., in 1965 while marching for voters’ rights. His death was a major factor in prompting President Lyndon Johnson to introduce, just days later, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was passed by Congress and prohibited racial discrimination in voting, Hardies noted.
In his honor, All Souls has named its work on this issue the Reeb Project. It has four goals through 2016, including increasing voter turnout in North Carolina in the 2014 and 2016 elections by working with local UU and other partner organizations there, and to have an impact on the national discussion on voters’ rights by leveraging its unique history, location in the nation’s capital, and influence within Unitarian Universalism. In June, on the one-year anniversary of the high court’s decision to limit the Voting Rights Act, 250 people from All Souls held a flash mob on the steps of the Supreme Court that was featured on the Huffington Post and received a tweet by Jon Stewart of the Daily Show.
Next weekend, participants from the two Charlotte UU churches and All Souls will worship together on Friday evening, September 26, before working all day Saturday going door to door in Charlotte to register voters. On Sunday, September 28, Barber will preach at the UU Church of Charlotte.
All Souls then plans to return to Charlotte in late October or early November to do get-out-the-vote work before the election, and it won’t stop there, said Hardies. “Our commitment to North Carolina is to work through the 2016 presidential election,” said Hardies. “Our hope is to work with the same brothers and sisters there, so it doesn’t feel like we’re coming once and never again.”
A large number of UUs from various congregations, including 250 people from All Souls, participated in the Moral March organized by the North Carolina NAACP last February in Raleigh, N.C., he noted.
“Our hope is to strengthen the Voting Rights Act for which a minister of our church gave his life, and to make sure that every person in America has the right to vote [and] has the fundamental rights to democracy and self-governance,” said Hardies.
Photograph (above): The Rev. Rob Hardies and the Rev. Cathy Rion Starr, ministers from All Souls Church Unitarian in Washington, D.C., march in Raleigh, N.C., on May 19, 2014, during a Moral Monday demonstration (Phil Martin).
- All Souls Church Unitarian Voting Rights Page. Photos, video, and a call to action. (all-souls.org)