LOUISVILLE, GEORGIA — Two days after a Jefferson County official ordered a senior center to remove roughly 40 elderly African Americans on their way to vote from Black Voters Matter’s bus, Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams rallied voters in the town, encouraging them to fight voter suppression.
Roughly 75 to 100 people — mostly African American — showed up at a parking lot in Louisvillle, just a few blocks from the senior center where the incident occurred Monday, to meet Abrams and cast early ballots.
“My goal is to make certain that every person be able to cast their vote,” Abrams told ThinkProgress, standing in the middle of the rally. “That’s why I wanted to come to Louisville to just encourage everyone to take advantage of the chance to early vote,” she said.
“Even if there are obstacles, we have to recognize that those obstacles are only permanent if we don’t fight them. We want to make certain that the folks of Louisville in Jefferson County understand that we are standing with them as they cast their votes.”
One woman at the event, 70-year old Bernice Hunley, said she was one of the seniors on the bus Monday. While she was disappointed to be told to get off, she said she ended up voting anyway.
“I got right off the bus, went in my truck, and went over there,” Hunley said. “Me and another lady from the center.”
After the event, Black Voters Matter’s team walked a block from the parking lot to the office of the Jefferson County Commission, where they spoke with both Administrator Adam Brett and Commission Chair Mitchell McGraw.
Brett issued a statement on Monday saying the county “felt uncomfortable with allowing the senior center patrons to leave the facility in a bus with an unknown third party,” but contradicted that statement during his conversation with organizers Wednesday. At that meeting, he blamed the decision on the senior center director who he said made the decision — not the administration.
Brett also claimed he wasn’t familiar with Black Voters Matter and didn’t know the group was apolitical; organizers took issue with the fact that he never bothered to ask. If he had, they said, he would have found out they are a non-partisan non-profit organization.
Brett also said he objected that Monday’s event at the senior center was organized by Diana Evans, the local chair of the Democratic Party. But Black Voters Matter said Evans is also a pastor and a community leader and was not working in her capacity as a Democratic Party official.
Evans told ThinkProgress she purposely wore a Black Voters Matter t-shirt Monday to indicate that she was working on voter outreach, and not partisan issues. She also pointed out that Jefferson County’s coroner, who is an elected Democrat, frequently hosts events at the senior center.
When ThinkProgress asked McGraw about the coroner’s activity, he admitted that the elected coroner does presentations at the senior center in the capacity of a partisan individual.
Black Voters Matter also debated with the administrator about whether the seniors can make their own choices to leave the building. The administrator said he feels responsible for them, while Black Voters Matter emphasized that they are “grown adults” who can make their own decisions.
LaTosha Brown, one of Black Voters Matter’s cofounders, left the meeting energized, explaining to her team the unconscious racism they witnessed inside the office.
“It is so indicative of how structural racism is the normal culture in these rural communities,” she said. “It became apparent to me, there in the meeting with this administrator, that he wasn’t even fully aware that voter intimidation and suppression and making choices for folks is so commonplace. He could not even see, at that moment, how inappropriate his behavior was. He still saw himself as paternalistic. He even admitted the seniors come there on his own accord, but he still saw them as children. He never acknowledged that he was wrong.”
Brown said she was glad that Black Voters Matter went back to Louisville, nonetheless, to send the message at the rally that they’re not going anywhere.
Evans also called the event, in which multiple people left to cast ballots, a success. “When they went low, we made it go high,” Evans said. “And the high is, going to vote.”