After Jonathan Davis became president of the Richmond Crusade for Voters in January, he reached out to a man who knows a thing or two about overcoming Black voter suppression.
Dr. William Ferguson Reid co-founded the Crusade in 1956 to register and mobilize Black voters during Massive Resistance. A dozen years later, he became the first African American seated in the Virginia General Assembly in the 20th century.
Now 96, he lives in Los Angeles, where he has observed with alarm rampant voter suppression laws born out of the lie that the election was stolen from Donald Trump.
As this suppression unfolded following Trump’s defeat, the Crusade’s ranks were depleted; its outreach, stymied by the pandemic. It was a shadow of the organization whose pioneering voter registration efforts during its heyday were described by University of Richmond historian Julian Maxwell Hayter as “the envy of the rest of the South.”
“I really felt an urge to run ... and try to right the ship, so to speak,” Davis, a longtime North Side civic leader who ran unsuccessfully for City Council in 2008, said in an interview Thursday.
As for Reid, “He and I have been talking a lot,” Davis said. “He’s excited about the direction we’re going in.”
Upon taking office, Davis launched a recruiting drive to attract 100 new members in 100 days, a successful effort that bolstered the organization’s ranks to 140 members, he said. This spring, the Crusade endorsed ranked-choice voting in Richmond City Council elections.
But mainly he’s stressing a return to the organization’s roots of voter registration, education and getting out the vote. “And you can’t do that just during election cycles. You’ve got to do that all year.”
Reid, in an interview Thursday, said he’s impressed with both Davis and his wife, Crusade member Carol Davis.
If the Crusade returns to flexing its muscle, it will be in a nick of time.
“Now is just as bad as it was then,” Reid said. “In fact, it might be worse than it was when we came along, if that’s possible.”
The emergence of Jim Crow 2.0 can be traced to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County vs. Holder decision. That ruling gutted the Voting Rights Act — created in response to poll taxes, literacy tests and physical violence against would-be Black voters — by eliminating the requirement that jurisdictions with a history of discrimination “pre-clear” changes to their voting rules.
Chief Justice John Roberts opined in that ruling that the country had changed enough that the preclearance provision was no longer needed. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued in her dissent that the majority’s decision was as logical as “throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
Predictably, voter suppression rained down — first in the form of voter ID laws crafted to create hardship for Black and Democrat-leaning voters, and now, in attempts by GOP legislators to wrest control of the electoral process from election officials and electoral boards.
Between January and July 14, at least 18 states enacted 30 laws that restrict access to the vote, according to the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice, which says the restrictions are “in large part motivated by false and often racist allegations about voter fraud.”
These laws make mail voting and early voting more difficult, impose harsher voter ID requirements, expand voter purges and weaponize partisan poll watchers. They even ban snacks and water to voters waiting in lines.
Anyone viewing Virginia as a shiny blue bubble, immune from the disease besetting democracy, needs to wake up.
“We have to make sure that we don’t get caught sleeping here in Virginia just because we have not been subjected to these same voter suppression tactics that are being used in other states,” Davis said. “We have to be alert and aware of what’s going on.”
The Crusade will hold its first in-person meeting since the pandemic began on Aug. 17, at Club 533 in Jackson Ward.
Reid suggested that the organization hold meetings in each voter district, a form of outreach appealing to Davis in the year ahead.
Increasing membership is crucial during this election year “and the very fine line we’re holding here in Virginia,” with national eyes on us, he said.
One of Davis’s goals is to recruit younger members to prepare them for future leadership, reaching out to high schools and college students largely unaware of the Crusade’s legacy.
That they don’t know about the Crusade helps explain how we landed in this predicament.
Or as Reid said: “I’ve learned the hard way ... that nothing is permanent in politics. That’s why you have to be watchful all the time.”
The survival of the Crusade — and our democracy — hinges on the engagement and energy of a young electorate. Otherwise, 1956 is always just around the corner.