Manatee County's voting rights activists will keep a vigilant eye on the polls

jtate@bradenton.comJune 30, 2013 

MANATEE COUNTY -- The Supreme Court's decision last week to strike down sections of the Voting Rights Act, which was designed to ensure that states with a history of persistent racial discrimination at the polls had to clear changes to voting procedures through the U.S. Justice Department, has prompted trepidation in local activists who worked hard to register black voters in the '60s and '70s.

The law applied to nine states -- Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia -- and to counties and cities in other states, including Hillsborough, Monroe, Collier, Hardee and Hendry counties in Florida.

While the change doesn't affect Manatee County directly, those voting rights activists fear that the Supreme Court decision is a first step in eroding the rights they fought so hard for.

Adora Obi Nweze, NAACP Florida state president, said her organization will encourage Congress to work on a bipartisan platform to make sure the voting rights law is based on the needs of voters today.

"We have to make sure this ruling will not keep people from voting," said Nweze. "I hope it will not interrupt the democratic process."

Community activists such as Ed Dick, who has lived in Manatee County for more than 50 years, hopes that things never go back to where they were in the 1960s.

Dick remembers being determined to register thousands of voters in the 1960s. He said once he and colleague registered a voter who was in the bathroom during their visit to his home. They handed him the form and the man filled out the paper while sitting on the toilet.

"I bet there is not another story like that in voter registration history in the United States," Dick said, laughing. "We were very determined to get people to register to vote."

For Dick, giving minorities their say at the polls was serious business that he didn't take lightly. He informed voters on where candidates stood on the issues and even remembers speaking out against Roy Baden, a former Manatee County Sheriff, who once led the Ku Klux Klan through a predominantly black neighborhood in Manatee County. He said he told black voters not to re-elect him. The sheriff was later removed from his position by state legislators.

The majority of Justices last week found that the coverage formula in Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which Congress last updated in 1975, was unconstitutional. The formula determined which states must receive approval from the Justice Department or a federal court before they made any changes to voting procedures, from moving a polling place to redrawing electoral districts.

"Our country has changed," Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority. "While any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions."

Congress had extended the preclearance requirement -- section 5 of the act -- for 25 years in 2006 after holding hearings over the persistence of racial discrimination at the polls, but it relied on data from 1975 to decide which states and localities were covered.

Chief Justice Roberts wrote that the current preclearance requirements are "based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relationship to the present day."

"Congress -- if it is to divide the states -- must identify those jurisdictions to be singled out on a basis that makes sense in light of current conditions," he wrote. "It cannot simply rely on the past."

Local activists are planning to watch for any signs of racial discrimination at the polls.

Susie Copeland, the NAACP president for Manatee County, said the chapter will keep the community informed of what state legislatures are doing and will host workshops on the changes. Copeland said the key to keeping elected officials accountable will be to stay in contact them.

"The progress made in the 1960s has been pushed back, but we will not cease to stand and fight for equality and justice for all America," said Copeland. "We will encourage the community to stay in contact with elected officials. Let them know we are watching year round."

Mary and Theodore "Ted" Tillis, a couple who were both born and raised in Bradenton and Palmetto, remember the segregated days of Manatee County.

The Tillises said things were not as turbulent in Manatee as they were in other parts of the country, but winning equality was a struggle.

"Voting wasn't a problem, but there were other problems like jobs, segregation and discrimination," said Ted Tillis, who was there in 1970 when Gov. Claude Kirk took over the Manatee County School board and teachers walked out of schools in protest.

Mary Tillis said during that time she was busy working as a teacher and taking care of the couple's children, but still found the time to encourage people to vote and informed them on where candidates stood on issues that concerned minorities.

It took work to get people to trust going to the polls to vote, Dick stressed, and he doesn't want to see that work eroded by this recent Supreme Court decision.

Back then, his efforts brought threats of lawsuits and numerous nuisance calls to his home phone at all hours of the night. Dick even feared someone would shoot at his house, so he had his young son sleep on a mattress on the floor for safety.

"I hope the court's decision does not disenfranchises minority voters, but if it does it will be corrected," he said.

Copeland, Manatee County NAACP president, said they will not let the court's ruling erase everything that people like her, the Tillises and Dick fought for. She said that this ruling means their work has just begun.

"We have to educate our community," said Copeland, who remembers intense discrimination. "Our process of reaching people has to be different than it was 50 years ago."

Janey Tate, city of Bradenton and Palmetto reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041. You can follow her on Twitter @Janey_Tate.