Sunday, October 08, 2006

How the Drug War has Eroded What was Gained in the Civil Rights Movement

by Loretta Nall

I spent Saturday, October 7, 2006 in Montgomery, AL registering ex-felons to vote. At the corner of Rosa L. Parks Avenue and West Fairview Avenue my colleagues from the Montgomery chapter of The Ordinary People Society set up shop in the barber shop parking lot and proceeded to do some serious politikin' in the heart of the black community. What a day!

Historic Montgomery, AL provides a backdrop for this kind of work like no other place on earth. Birthplace and battleground of the 1960's Civil Right's Movement Montgomery has seen her share of brutality and bloodshed, but sadly, not much change has come as a result. Nor has Alabama as a whole seen much change when it comes to protecting and preserving the right to vote.

Alabama is one of six states that excludes from voting more than 4 percent of its adult population, or more than one in twenty-five. Currently there are around 256,000 disenfranchised voters in Alabama. In Alabama 31% of all black men are disenfranchised. (Source: Human Rights Watch )

According to statistics from the AL DOC 59.1% of Alabama's prison population is black while 40.7% is white. Alabama's black population is 26%. There is something wrong when the numbers look like that.

I arrived at the barber shop, owned by Mr. William Boyd, around 10:30 a.m. Already there was Rev. Earl Wagner who is retired from the military and now runs a prison ministry, Elizabeth, who was a frequent caller on The Morning Show with Roberta Franklin and always one of my favorite commentators. Elizabeth is just wild. She is probably around 70 years old, has lived a long time in a harsh state and will not hesitate to tell you just exactly what she thinks about, well anything. She holds no punches and spares no one. Elizabeth brought some hotdogs and fixins, someone brought the drinks and paper supplies and the grill was fired up so we could fill some hungry bellies should any happen by.

Another sweet little lady brought a big batch of homemade brownies. For the life of me I cannot remember her name. She remembered me though and rushed up and hugged my neck and said in her sweet, rich, black, southern little old lady voice, "Oooo Weee das Loretta Nall. How you doin' baby. It's so good to see ye chile'. How's the campaign goin? I'm votin' for you and so is just about everyone else I know."

It is quite moving to have little old black ladies who participated in the civil rights movement show you some love like that. I'm sure there is nothing else quite like it. I get emotional just thinking about it.

Everyone wanted to know how the election is going so we discussed that for a while as well as many other political goings-on in this election year. A few young people showed up and began to make hand-lettered signs announcing our purpose for being there and shortly after folks began to show up and register.

I think we registered about 20 people before I left later that afternoon. My friends from Channel 8 News came by to interview Rev. Wagner. They also filmed me helping one gentleman fill out his application and explaining what crimes had already been determined not to involve moral turpitude. I missed whatever broadcast it was on because I was not near a TV. A news broadcaster from WVAS Alabama State Univ. Radio also stopped by and interviewed Rev. Wagner and me. I missed that broadcast too.

A little way into the afternoon Rev. Kenneth Glasgow who is the founder of The Ordinary People Society came in from Dothan to lend a helping hand. I work very closely with Kenny on a variety of different projects here in Alabama and I admire him greatly. Kenny spent ten years of a life sentence in an Alabama prison for a crack cocaine charge. He is now the pastor of his own church who runs transitional services for inmates re-entering society. He provides food, clothing, shelter and most importantly love, moral support and first hand experience in what it is like for people coming out of prison.

Kenny is greatly admired by the Dothan, AL community. Only two days before the voter registration event Kenny walked into the Dothan Co. Sheriffs Office and requested that he be allowed to register anyone in jail who is eligible under the court ruling from Judge Vance, and shockingly, he was granted permission from the same sheriff and D.A. who sent him to serve a life sentence. Another sheriff in Alabama allowing voter registration in his jail is Tuskegee Sheriff David Warren.

Kenny told me he was attending the 54th Annual State NAACP Convention that afternoon and speaking there that evening and asked me to join him at an ex-felon voter registration workshop he was conducting at 4 p.m.
When Kenny said 'join him' I thought he meant to sit in the audience and watch, not 'get up and speak at the workshop' but that is what it turned out to be.

Also with us was Ralph Hendrix who is the programs director at TASC at the University of Alabama, Birmingham. We were the only two white people in the entire hotel. It was great fun. Ralph, who is as white a redneck as you can find anywhere got up and introduced himself by saying, "My name is Ralph Hendrix and in case y'all ain't noticed, I'm a cracker." The whole room erupted into laughter and clapping. Ralph is a hell of a guy. Many of my friends and co-workers from out of state have had the pleasure of meeting him here in Alabama and all regard him very highly. He is a remarkable human being who has spent the last 30 years of his life trying to keep alcohol offenders, drug offenders and others who do not belong in jail out of jail. Ralph is one of us through and through and I am a very lucky individual to know him and to have the relationship with him that I do. He is the first one I call when I need a question answered about anything criminal justice system related. He knows every judge and lawyer in the state it seems like. He is a wealth of good information.

Ralph spoke about the kind of work he does and the things he has seen in his many years working within the AL DOC. He spoke about the civil rights movement and asked the audience members what it was like to participate in it. It was a fascinating discussion with some of the older audience members reiterating stories of having to state the number of bubbles in a bar of soap and other outrageous injustices perpetrated on the black community before the 1960's. It is one thing to read about that in history books. It is quite another thing entirely to sit in a room full of people who were actually there and actually experienced it first hand.

I was very honored to be given the unexpected opportunity to address this group of Alabama citizens who have lived through so much. I didn't take up a great deal of time because I was totally unprepared to speak. I told them a little about who I am and how I got started social justice work in Alabama and how it was that I came to run for Governor. I explained the breakdown in the number of black drug offenders in jail vs. the number of white drug offenders in jail. I told them of my experiences here in Tallapoosa County with police cruisers staking out trailer parks and housing projects but neglecting to post any cruisers at StillWaters even though statistics show that as many people in StillWaters use drugs as people in the Talla-Coosa Trailer Park.

I spoke about how the drug war has been used to replace the poll taxes and soap bubble questions that were a part of Alabama pre-Civil Rights era politics by rounding up as many black people as they can find. I spoke about the canvassing of black neighborhoods because police and public officials know that black people are much more likely to not have the means to fight back in the legal system and are much more likely to be convicted by a jury. I reiterated a few lines from my Selma Speech. "The drug war has replaced the overseer in the field for the overseer in the jails and if something isn't done to stop it then pretty soon there won't be enough black citizens with voting rights left intact to make a difference in Alabama politics...and that in large part is what the entire drug war is about. Marginalizing certain segments of the population."

I closed my remarks by letting them know that I am at their service for whatever drug policy and prison reform work they do in the state of Alabama....just give me a call and I'll be there with bells on.

I can say without any doubt whatsoever that this was a day well spent. I am truly honored and blessed with riches beyond count to have been a part of that event. I'll be at it again next weekend at Oak Park located at 1010 Forest Ave. in Montgomery, AL where I will be speaking at our annual Journey for Justice Prison Reform Rally. Here are pictures from our march on Washington DC in 2005.

Please join us on Saturday, Oct. 14, 2006 at Oak Park in Montgomery for a repeat performance.

If you have any spare change for gas money I could use it. Starting on the 10th of October I will be somewhere almost every day campaigning and I need your help to make sure I make it to all the places I am scheduled to appear.

I hope to see you on the trail.

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