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EDITOR’S NOTE: The National Rural Assembly, a network of organizations and individuals focused on improving conditions in rural America, will meet May 21-23 in Durham, North Carolina. The Assembly is coordinated by the Center for Rural Strategies, which also publishes the Daily Yonder.
Anita Earls saw others take risks to protect voting rights and was inspired this year to seek a seat on the North Carolina Supreme Court.
Carol Blackmon helped register voters in the Deep South in the 1960s and never stopped working for civil rights.
Both women exemplify the kind of “civic courage” that will be the focus of the 2018 National Rural Assembly, organizers say. The gathering is May 21-23 in Durham, North Carolina.
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“I was spurred to run for office because I passionately believe in the importance of voting rights, and have admiration for the people who stand up and take risks to secure these rights,” said Earls, a candidate for North Carolina Supreme Court Justice.
Earls founded the Southern Coalition for Social Justice in 2007, a group working to support social justice efforts in the South. The organization is home to a team of lawyers, social scientists, community organizers and media specialists that supports efforts to dismantle structural racism and oppression. One focus is protecting minority voting rights and expanding civic participation for all.
“In the wake of the 2010 Census, there were active efforts throughout the South to roll back voting rights and limit participation,” Earls said. “We’ve worked in North Carolina, Florida, Texas, Tennessee and Virginia to block voter disenfranchisement, speak out against voter intimidation and worked to challenge unfair legislative voting districts.”
Most recently, Earls litigated successful challenges to North Carolina’s “monster” voter suppression law, so-called by critics because of the way it combined several provisions that affected minorities disproportionately. Earls resigned from the Southern Coalition for Social Justice to pursue the North Carolina Supreme Court seat. She will be presenting her experience and thoughts related to voting and civil rights efforts as a “Firestarter” speaker at this year’s National Rural Assembly.
“I’m really excited to attend the Rural Assembly, and to spend some time listening, to hear what important issues and solutions are coming forward in rural communities,” Earls said.
Earls will be joined at the Assembly by civil rights veteran Blackmon, who has worked on voting rights and civil rights efforts throughout the Southern states since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
“I’m a product of rural America, grew up on a farm that produced everything,” Blackmon said. “I grew up in a time when voter registration, voting and education were seen as three milestones that would help lift the African-American community out of the abject poverty and the racist environment we saw at the time. When I was in high school, I participated in voter registration drives and have continued that work up through today.” .
Today, Blackmon is working with the Southern Rural Black Women Initiative for Economic and Social Justice.
“[We] work with women and young girls in rural communities to help assure that they’re engaged in the democratic process. We try to give them the tools they need, expose them to the right kind of training to help empower them to feel encouraged to participate, to take a stand on issues that they firmly believe in.”
Blackmon has attended all but one of the National Rural Assemblies, which began in 2007.
“I find that the work that the Assembly does is imperative to bring rural issues into a broader and bigger context, especially right now,” she said. “People often don’t realize that rural America makes up such a large part of this country, that it helps to make it run. Rural communities bring so much to the table, including the food that we eat, the resources it takes to make the country run, keep the air and water clean.”
Blackmon and Earls both draw inspiration and hope from voter engagement activities they see happening throughout rural communities, even as the political environment grows more bitter in some places.
“One of our Human Rights Commission leaders, and city commissioner from Georgia, who will also be attending the Assembly, was charged with voter fraud,” Blackmon said. “Similar tactics have been used around Georgia to push back against African Americans doing voter work, we’re hearing. And, unfortunately, we’ve heard from some people that they’re not going to vote any more. It’s just not worth it to some people. This is an active strategy to cause people to divert attention from participation, and to try and get voters to disengage from the democratic process.”
“Particularly with the African American women, who are increasingly seen as a critical voting bloc, these are the women that put [Democratic U.S. Senator] Doug Jones over the finish line in Alabama. We’re working on voter education, mobilization, turnout, getting people to polls. That can really increase the number of voters that participate on Election Day, so that the voting results reflect the actual diversity of the people. We have to keep standing up and participating, fighting back against voter suppression going on in places all across our country these days.”