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March For Voting Rights Saturday In Pensacola

Voting Rights
Jose Luis Magana
Voting rights activists march outside of the U.S. Supreme Court, during a voting rights rally on Capitol Hill, in Washington, Monday, Aug. 2, 2021.

Changes to Florida’s voting laws will be the focus of a March for Voting Rights — set for midday Saturday at Seville Square in downtown Pensacola. The event is an offshoot of the national March for Voting Rights in Washington, D.C.

Besides Florida and the nation’s capital, the marches will take place in Georgia, Arizona, and Texas, where voter suppression efforts have been passed into law. Jeff Nall is an organizer of the local march and says the Aug. 28 date is no accident.

“That’s the 58th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic march on Washington,” Nall said. “A group in Pensacola decided that we wanted to have a local march; and if you go to marchonforvotingrights.org, you can see all the places around the country, and you can see how widespread the concern, and the support, for this movement is.”

Those wishing to march, or just to come and hear the speeches, are asked to take protective measures against COVID-19 — mask up and socially distance.

“The Escambia County Health Department will be operating a station to provide COVID-19 vaccinations and information for anyone interested in learning more about vaccinations — that’s a plus,” said Nall. “We want this community to be healthy, but we do want our voices to be heard. And we think we can find a way to do that.”

The march kicks off at 11:30 a.m. outside the Escambia County Supervisor of Elections Office on Palafox Place and will proceed to Seville Square for the rally at 11:45. Among those scheduled to speak is Civil rights icon Rev. H.K. Matthews.

“It’s been 58 years ago [since the march], but still my memory is pretty vivid of that day; so I don’t have to do a lot of prepping for [his speech],” Matthews said. “When I’m talking about days and dates I’m familiar with, I normally just ab-lib — just go to wherever I’m led.”

HK Matthews WUWF.jpg
WUWF Public Media
Rev. H.K. Matthews

In 2021, Matthews can see parallels between the new, restrictive voting laws, with the attempts to curb minority voting rights in the run-up to the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

“They made us count the number of jelly beans in a jar, which was impossible; and of course the poll tax that was imposed upon some of the older people,” he said. “What some of the states are doing, this is just a revisit of Jim Crow.”

Two of the biggest culprits, contends Matthews, are two governors – Greg Abbott in Texas, and Ron DeSantis in Florida. The tactics are different from the mid-60s, he says, but the goals are the same: preventing certain groups from casting a ballot.

“We expected it back then; but Lord knows in 2021, after all that we have gone through, and all that we have accomplished, I never dreamed that we would be back to a day that they’re trying to take us back to a time that never should have been.”

Some advice from Matthews to those targeted by the new laws: get off what he calls their “stools of do nothing,” and not depend on others to do the work.

“I hope that this is the beginning of a movement that will sweep throughout this nation; and that it will have the same effect on those in high places — that they won’t have any choice but to acquiesce,” Matthews said. “And come down off of their racist horses.”

Just moments after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed Florida’s restrictive voting bill into law, voting rights groups filed a couple of lawsuits against it. Organizer Jeff Nall declined to speculate on the hearts and minds of lawmakers and politicians.

“But what I do know is that limiting access to voting impacts everyone, Democrats, Independents, Republicans,” Nall said. “So, however it started and wherever it started, anyone who wants to assure that their voice is heard, and that they have a say, should be concerned by changes that limit access.”

Nall was asked what he hopes the participants, and everyone else for that matter, will take away from Saturday in the park.

“I think people — one — need to get educated,” he said. “We have some great speakers that are going to share some great information. So what I would like to see happen, is people learn the reality; and what they can do and how they can within this new environment. And what the limitations will be and how to prepare for that, and then go share that with others.”

Voter registration and vote-by-mail applications will also be available, as well as application forms for qualifying those interested in restoring their right to vote. Going to the polls, says Rev. H.K. Matthews, is the ultimate weapon against voter suppression.

“We must turn out and vote, not because of, but in spite of, we have got to be in ‘show business,’” Matthews said. “And show those who are trying to deter us and set us back that, as we used to say and sing in the movement, ‘Ain’t gonna let nobody turn us around.’”

Dave came to WUWF in September, 2002, after 14 years as News Director at the Alabama Radio Network in Montgomery, Mobile and Birmingham and a total of 27 years in commercial radio. He's also served as Alabama Bureau Chief for United Press International, and a stringer for the Birmingham Post-Herald.