Hurricane Katrina's survivors are about to be brutalized once more. They withstood the havoc wreaked by the storm. They overcame the failure of national, state and local officials to provide basic relief in the wake of the storm. They are struggling to overcome the Federal Emergency Management Agency's failure to provide for sensible relocation, rebuilding and return.
And now, their rights are about to be trampled once more in an injustice that may finally do more to destroy New Orleans than the storm — by forcibly disenfranchising the city's Black majority.
New Orleans is now reduced from 450,000 residents to about 150,000. Over 300,000 people — most of them African Americans, many of them poor — have been removed from New Orleans and dispersed to some 44 states across the country. Those who have been dispersed have been given no right of return. Many are fighting to regain the properties, the homes, the apartments, the jobs that they once had.
New Orleans has gone from two-thirds African American to majority White. In these conditions, New Orleans faces the scheduled election of its mayor and city officials on April 22. Now those who fought through the storm, survived FEMA's catastrophic incompetence at relief and utter mismanagement of the recovery are about to have their voting rights stripped away.
The state of Louisiana and the Bush administration have refused to provide satellite voting places for those dispersed across the country. They have refused to provide an absentee ballot to every displaced registered voter. The state of Louisiana has been given the addresses of registered voters who have been displaced — the new voter roll – but, incredibly, has refused to make it available to the local candidates or election officials.
Officials are planning on holding an election with a secreted voting roll in New Orleans. The U.S. District Court of Louisiana has refused to postpone the election to reverse this injustice. The voting rights of 300,000 of Katrina's survivors are about to be suppressed.
If the projected April 22 election is allowed to go forward, it will be the first time in our history that a public election will be held with secret voting rolls. Candidates running for office will not be able to contact voters; elected officials will not be able to communicate with their constituents. Poor and vulnerable citizens, displaced from their homes, will have to figure out where to ask for an absentee ballot about an election that many may not even know is taking place.
The basic rights to polling places and ballots are not extreme. The U.S. government provided Iraqis with satellite polling booths to vote in the Iraqi election. It provided Mexicans in America with satellite polling booths to vote in the Mexican election. Now it is refusing to provide American citizens brutalized by natural disaster with the same access.
The administration, of course, wanted the election in Iraq and Mexico to "turn out right" — to elect people friendly to the United States. Failing to provide the same service to American citizens suggests the administration wants the New Orleans election to "turn out right," and is intentionally suppressing the vote of those who are dispersed.
March 5 marked the anniversary of the Selma March in 1965 — when state troopers viciously attacked peaceful citizens marching for the right to vote. The national revulsion to the horrors of that day helped lead to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which provides for federal enforcement of the right to vote for minorities who had been locked out in the South — inlcuding Louisiana.
On April 1, ministers, concerned citizens and people of conscience from across the country will gather in New Orleans, in ground zero of the Katrina zone. We will demand voting rights and the right to return for all the residents of New Orleans.
We will not allow basic voting rights to be trampled by those happy to build a New Orleans stripped of its racial majority.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. is founder and president of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.