Stacey Abrams in Detroit: You can't strip people from the right to vote

Candice Williams
The Detroit News

Detroit — Former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams challenged NAACP members Monday with doing their part to fight to end voter suppression and ensuring their communities are counted in the 2020 Census.

“Once we’ve written down our plans we’re not going to forget that we’ve got to do the work when we get back home,” Abrams said during a keynote address during the 110th Annual NAACP convention. “Because in states across this country, we have to start putting in place voter protection operations today.

"We’ve got to start putting in place voter registration efforts today. We’ve got to make sure that the census is not just a conversation but an action plan that we are pursuing, that we’re already talking about what’s going to happen.”

Stacey Abrams gives the keynote address at the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Memorial Luncheon at the NAACP's convention at Cobo Center in Detroit on Monday.

Abrams made her remarks Monday during the Clarence Mitchell Jr. Memorial Luncheon during the convention at Cobo Center. Mitchell was the chief Washington lobbyist for the NAACP for nearly three decades and led efforts to pass measures including the Civil Rights Act 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

Abrams, a Democrat and Mississippi native, is the first woman to lead either party in the Georgia General Assembly and the first African American to lead in the House of Representatives in the state. In 2018, she became the first black woman nominated by a major party for governor in U.S. history.

After losing the election in November, Abrams accused her opponent Brian Kemp of using his elected position as secretary of state of Georgia to suppress African American votes. Kemp has denied it. After a 10-day post-election battle, Abrams acknowledged that Kemp would become governor.

“I refused to concede my election because you can’t condone a system that is broken,” she said. “You can’t say it is true and right and proper to strip people from the right to vote. To deny their registration, to purge 1.4 million of them. It’s not right to tell them their polling places are closed because you’re too cheap to keep it open. You can’t tell them that a four-hour line is an OK thing when you’ve got shift workers making $5.15 an hour in the state of Georgia because that’s our minimum wage.

"You can’t impose a poll tax and tell me in 2019 that that’s OK. Voter registration, ballot access and ballot counting, those are truths that we know to be part of the litany and the legacy and the taxonomy of voter suppression. And I’m here to tell you when we fight it, NAACP, we will win. ”

She said during her campaign Georgia saw an increase in Latino, Asian Pacific Island and black voter turnout. There was also an increase in the white democratic vote for the first time in 30 years, she said.

Abrams' work includes founding the New Georgia Project, which submitted more than 200,000 registrations from voters of color between 2014 and 2016. She is also the founder and chair of Fair Fight Action, an organization that advocates for free and fair elections and the voting rights in Georgia.

Abrams noted the importance of empowering voters for the upcoming presidential election in 2020.

“I’m not going to tell you which party to choose, but I will tell you that when hostile power tells you you don’t belong here, you might want to listen to what they’re trying to tell you,”  Abrams told the audience

She also challenged members to not be complacent. She urged them to encourage others to vote and to not just drive by neighborhoods they may be too scared to visit.  

“When you vote in that school board election, your child gets pencils in the classroom, that when you vote in that state legislative election, they can’t strip you of your right to health care," she said. "That when you show up in the census, you actually get congressional representation that looks like your state. We’ve got to be the truth-tellers. We’ve got to be the ones that point the way.”

Abrams also focused on the importance of the 2020 census.

“When we get counted by the 2020 census, we suddenly become entitled to the resources that flow from D.C. like manna from heaven,” she said. “Billions of dollars are lost every year because black men go uncounted, because black women go uncounted, black children go unseen."

Prior to Abrams’ speech, NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson told the audience he expects greater things from her in the future.

“Once Stacey Abrams lands in her executive position — whether it’s the governor of Georgia or in the presidency — we can be assured that she not only knows how to govern, she will represent our interests well,” he said.

Following her speech, the NAACP awarded Abrams the Champion of Justice Award.

Also honored was the late U.S. Circuit Court Judge Damon J. Keith, who was posthumously awarded the first NAACP Beacon of Justice Award. Keith’s nephew, Wayne County Probate Court Judge Terrance Keith, accepted the award on his behalf.

“He used the law as his sword and his weapon for justice,” Terrance Keith said. “My uncle worked up to the Thursday before he died hearing and administering cases at 96. He had every intention of being back to work on Monday to finish his cases. ... So whenever you think the path is too difficult, the challenge too unknown, look toward that beacon of light that’s been sent by my uncle and press on.”

The Georgia State Conference received the Juanita Jackson Mitchell Award named for the civil rights leader and first African American woman to practice law in Maryland.

Twitter: @CWilliams_DN