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Malcolm Jenkins on combating voter suppression in communities of color

Why voting rights are an important issue for the veteran NFL safety

New Orleans Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins, speaking with Complex News, urged government bodies at all levels to make voting accessible to all citizens ahead of the 2020 presidential election as a way to combat voter suppression efforts against African Americans and other communities of color, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’re having to make sure that people can participate from wherever they are, whether it’s mail, whether it’s online, it’s in person. All of these options have to be opened up to make sure that everybody’s vote matters,” Jenkins, who is entering his 12th NFL season, said on the website’s digital show, Complex World.

Appearing with Stacey Abrams, the former Democratic candidate for governor of Georgia, and North Carolina musician and activist Rapsody, Jenkins spoke about the importance of voting, the history of voter suppression efforts against black people in America, and why he has chosen to use his platform as a professional athlete to bring light to voting issues.

(Note: The episode was filmed weeks before the protests across the country in the wake of the killing of George Floyd while he was in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25.)

African Americans have been fighting for the right to vote for centuries, from the days of chattel slavery, through Reconstruction and the civil rights movement, up to the election in November. But throughout the country’s history, there have been hurdles. During Jim Crow, poll taxes were implemented to keep African Americans from the polls. While the 24th Amendment and Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibited racial discrimination in voting, the suppression efforts took on a different look in recent decades, particularly after a key section of the Voting Rights Act was invalidated by the Supreme Court in 2013.

From voter ID laws, gerrymandering, purging of voter rolls, or in the case of Florida, poll taxes again, politicians have found ways to prevent nonwhite people from being able to cast votes.

“When we look at the racial makeup and history of our country, it’s in the best interest — or used to be in the best interest — of white America to protect the interests of white America and not share those rights with anybody else,” Jenkins said. “Whether you shut down voting sites and make people travel far distances to get to cast their votes or the lines are really, really long, and you’re making people spend time that they could otherwise be doing making money, be at their jobs or doing other things.

“Where this happens most often are in communities of color, communities that are already disadvantaged.”

The right to vote is such an important issue to Jenkins, who co-founded the Players Coalition, a nonprofit social justice organization composed of current and former NFL players, because of the sacrifices many African Americans have made to win the right to participate in a democracy.

“We have to understand how our country works. There’s a reason that our ancestors put their lives on the line for our ability to vote and have done all of these things — our long history of civil rights and all these things. Being able to vote was the No. 1 thing that was fought for because we know that that’s how we can change the landscape of the country from a democracy standpoint,” he said.

“There’s still a lot, obviously, that we have to do on top of that, but the very first thing — we know if you don’t have a vote, you don’t have a voice, you don’t have a say in what happens to you, you don’t have a say in what happens in your community, your city, your state. And lives have been put on the line for that ability, and I think we all need to honor that and respect it … not only for us, but for the next generation.”

Civic leaders like Abrams, who founded multiple voting and civil rights organizations since losing her gubernatorial bid against Brian Kemp in 2018, have been leading efforts over the past few years to address systematic attempts to block the black vote. For November, Abrams is championing scaling up vote-by-mail measures, making in-person voting safer during the COVID-19 pandemic and increasing same-day voter registration.

“Voting suppression has always been about trying to take back what has been gained through blood and fighting and legislation,” Abrams said in the episode.

“The work that I’m trying to do is about making sure that we can get back to where we were in ’65, and more importantly we can get to where we need to be in 2021.”

Martenzie Johnson is a senior writer for Andscape. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said, "Y'all want to see somethin?"