Montravias King inspires a roadmap for successful voting rights advocacy

On Tuesday, September 3 2013 SCSJ represented Elizabeth City State University senior Montravias King in a hearing before the NC State Board of Elections. Mr. King wanted to run for city council, but the local Board of Elections had ruled that because he lived on-campus he was not eligible. While SCSJ provided the legal representation that led to the State Board of Elections allowing Mr. King to run for city council, that is only part of the story. A much larger social justice community was involved.

Montravias King is no stranger to organizing. As a past president of the Elizabeth City State chapter of the NAACP, he has experience working with others to reach his goals. When Montravias first found out that his candidacy was being challenged, he went to the Pasquotank County NAACP’s Keith Rivers for advice. Mr. Rivers, whose brother Kirk was challenged by the same Republican party chairman when Kirk was elected to the Elizabeth City Council several years ago and prevailed with legal representation from SCSJ, referred Montravias to us. Keith Rivers and Montravias King worked together with ESCU supporters to gather support for Montravias’ right to run for office as an on-campus resident. They also reached out to the North Carolina State Conference of Branches of the NAACP, which provided advice and support.  Attorney Gerry Cohen wrote an op-ed in the Raleigh News & Observer laying out arguments for Montravias’ right to run. At the SBOE hearing, Montravias was surrounded by a crowd of supporters so large that it surpassed the capacity of the building.

Montravias with student supporters from Elizabeth City State University

Montravias with student supporters from Elizabeth City State University

Students from across NC played an important role as well: at the State Board of Elections hearing, college students from several universities gathered for a rally on behalf of student voting rights. From Appalachian State to ECSU, North Carolina’s college students value their right to participate in the electoral process. The rally, coordinated by Rock the Vote and Democracy North Carolina, provided a venue for students to show their concern. These organizations also organized a petition asking the SBOE to support Mr. King’s candidacy and encouraged discussion of the case on their social media pages.

This multipronged approach is central to SCSJ’s model of advocacy. Our mission is to partner with communities of color and economically disadvantaged communities in the south to defend and advance their political, social and economic rights through the combination of legal advocacy, research, organizing and communications. In the case of Montravias King, SCSJ provided primarily legal advocacy and research, while partner groups across the state provided advice, organizing, and communications support to Mr. King. By working together, individuals and community groups formed a larger movement for voting rights in North Carolina.

Montravias King speaks, surrounded by supporters from SCSJ, Democracy NC, the NC NAACP, and Rock the Vote.

Montravias King speaks, surrounded by supporters from SCSJ, Democracy NC, the NC NAACP, and Rock the Vote.

This movement is continuing to tackle voter suppression at its heart: by opposing the 57-page Voter ID bill signed into law by NC Governor Pat McCrory in August. Just like the Montravias King case, many partners are collaborating to move this larger voting rights agenda. Several lawsuits have been filed on behalf of clients such as the NC NAACP (represented by the Advancement Project); the League of Women Voters of NC, the NC A. Philip Randolph Institute, Common Cause NC, and others represented by SCSJ, the ACLU of North Carolina and the national ACLU. In three separate lawsuits these plaintiffs are challenging facets of the new NC voting law including the requirement for a state-issued photo ID, limits to early voting, ending same-day voter registration, and eliminating provisional ballots for people who go to the wrong precinct. In addition to the lawsuits, groups such as Democracy North Carolina and local branches of the NAACP are providing information and advocacy to ensure that all voters know their rights and are able to exercise their right to vote.

In the voting rights movement, we recognize and appreciate the accomplishments of every participant, from national organizations to concerned individuals.  Because each one of us makes a vital contribution. We create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. In the words of the poet June Jordan, “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”