BY SUSAN LAMONT
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama - A voting rights car caravan wound its way through communities in Greene County May 2 to win support for a defense campaign on behalf of 12 political activists in this predominantly Black, rural county in western Alabama. Organizers of the car caravan also urged participation in the June 2 primary elections as a way of standing up to efforts by federal and state officials to intimidate Black voters. The action was sponsored by the Alabama New South Coalition (ANSC), Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), NAACP, Southern Organizing Committee, Alabama Black Belt Defense Fund, and Kentucky Alliance.
The defense campaign for the 12 activists in Greene, Wilcox, and Hale counties is spearheaded by the Alabama Black Belt Defense Committee. It aims to overturn federal indictments of voting fraud against six civil rights and community activists in Greene County, the previous conviction of two others there on similar charges, and two more in Wilcox County. Two others face upcoming trials in Hale County.
Following three years of investigation by the FBI and Alabama Bureau of Investigation, 30 federal indictments were brought against the six Greene County activists in January 1998, charging them with conspiracy to commit voter fraud. These indictments follow the convictions on similar charges of Frank "Pinto" Smith, who has been removed from his elected position as Greene County Commissioner, and longtime community activist Connie Tyree, who faces 33 months in prison. They are appealing their convictions.
The six facing indictments are Greene County SCLC president Spiver Gordon, County Commissioner Garria Spencer, Althenia Spencer, Greene County Racing Commissioner Lester Brown, and county employees Booker T. Cooke, Jr., and Felephus Hardy.
"We need the support of progressive-minded people across the nation," explained SCLC president Gordon in a phone interview. "This current case is an extension of the harassment and intimidation carried out by the FBI and state authorities against Black voters in the 1980s. It's an attempt to keep Black people from exercising their constitutional rights and voting rights."
In 1985 government officials brought 212 felony charges against eight Black voting rights activists in Greene County, including Gordon. None of the charges held up and all the defendants were eventually cleared. Greene County been a center for Black rights organizing for many years, including work on behalf of Black family farmers. The latest indictments grew out of an "investigation" of the 1994 elections initiated by Jefferson Sessions, then Attorney General of Alabama. Sessions, a Republican, is now a U.S. senator. He was also involved in bringing the 1980s indictments. The eight people from Greene County are all Democrats.
The current charges revolve around the use of absentee ballots, which are often used by older people and those who are ill or may not have ready access to transportation. It is legal to assist absentee voters in applying for ballots and using them. In 1994 absentee ballots accounted for one- fourth of the votes cast in Greene County.
Prior to the indictments, the FBI and ABI carried out an intense campaign of interrogation of those who voted absentee. They used the "investigation" of three Black church burnings in the area as a pretext to question people about voting. No one has been charged in the local church burnings.
"The indictments of the Greene County Eight and the others are part of a broad effort by the employers and their servants in both the Democratic and Republican parties to push back the gains of the civil rights movement," explained Kristin Meriam, Socialist Workers candidate for Alabama governor, in a recent interview. "This includes the bosses' drive to get rid of affirmative action; the growing resegregation in employment, housing, and education; and attacks on voting rights, like the one in Greene County. But these attacks are not going unanswered, as the Greene County defense effort shows, " the socialist candidate noted. "All working people in Alabama and around the country, whether Black, white, Latino, or Asian, have a stake in reversing these indictments, which are aimed at smearing and intimidating Black rights fighters and closing down space for political activity by workers and farmers."
For more information on the case or to send contributions, contact the Alabama Black Belt Defense Committee, P.O. Box 82, Eutaw, AL 35462.
Susan LaMont is a member of the United Steelworkers of
America in Fairfield, Alabama.
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