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WALLER COUNTY, TEXAS

Black students struggle for voting rights

By Gloria Rubac
Houston

On Feb. 5, four 18-year-old students, attending the historically Black Prairie View A & M University 40 miles northwest of Houston in Waller County, filed a suit against the county's district attorney in federal court because they fear being prosecuted for simply registering to vote.

The four students who filed the suit were Neothies Lindley Jr., K. Thanes Quee nan, Vivian Spikes and Brian Row land. The Prairie View Student Gov ernment backs the lawsuit.

The lawsuit was filed a day after Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott issued an opinion that Prairie View students must be allowed to register in Waller County using their campus address.

The development comes on the heels of a massive and militant Jan. 15 protest march and rally by over 5,000 of the 7,000-member student body. They celebrated Martin Luther King's 75th birthday by marching six miles from their campus to the Waller County Court House to demand the right to vote where they attend college.

In a massive show of force, the students took over U.S. Highway 290 for hours, backing up traffic for miles. The march was led by student leaders, Herschel Smith of the Waller County Leadership Council, State Rep. Al Edwards of Houston and U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston.

First-year student Ashley Moody of Houston, who was shocked and excited to be with so many students, said, "But it's sad, too, that it has to revolve back to something like this."

The issue of students' voting was decided in a 1979 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said the Prairie View students could vote in Waller County. Yet students say that registering to vote there has always been a struggle.

In November of last year Waller County District Attorney Oliver Kitzman, who is white, sparked controversy by publishing a letter in the local newspaper threatening to prosecute persons who failed to meet his definition of having a legal voting address.

According to the lawsuit, only Prairie View students failed to meet his definition.

The federal lawsuit seeks to put Kitzman's office under a 1978 federal court order that forced the Waller County registrar of voters to register Prairie View students.

Yolanda Smith, a spokesperson for the Houston NAACP, met with about 50 students last week. Many were afraid to register and felt threatened, she announced at a press conference at the attorneys' office after the suit was filed.

Attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and People for the American Way are representing the four students.

Houston NAACP President Fran Gen try said Kitzman would not have threatened to prosecute Prairie View students if the school were predominately white.

The lawsuit notes that some Prairie View students were actually indicted in 1992, accused of illegal voting based on where they lived. The charges were dropped later that year.

The basic right to vote has been a problem not just at Prairie View Uni ver sity. Everyone remembers that George W. Bush was selected to be president by the U.S. Supreme Court after the voting fiasco in Florida, where many African Americans were denied their right to vote by his brother, Gov. Jeb Bush.

But that didn't happen just in Florida. And it doesn't just happen at Black universities.

According to veteran activist and executive director of the SHAPE Community Center in Houston, Deloyd Parker, "Our community has historically had a hard time voting. They are always trying to steal our votes. Many of our elderly are turned away at the polls. Our people try to go vote and are told at the poll that they already voted absentee. Or they're told they're not on the list even though they've lived in the same house for 20 years."

"I took a 78-year-old woman to vote and when she was told she had already voted absentee, she vehemently denied that she had voted. So I had to carry her downtown to straighten it out and then take her back to the poll. How many people have the time or transportation to do that? So, in effect, there's a conspiracy to stop poor people from voting.

"We see it every election. They change the voting place to someone's garage and don't tell anyone until the day of the election. They deny our people the right to cast a challenge vote when they're told they're not on the rolls. This is widespread and it's not just Blacks but a lot of working people," Parker said.

In neither the Democratic Party in Texas nor the Republican Party have any leaders stepped up to the plate to condemn the attacks on voting rights in Waller County. This is no surprise. If they cared about Black students being able to vote, they would not only have expressed outrage but would have taken concrete action.

African-American Democratic politicians did participate in the march on King's birthday, including U.S. Rep. Lee, State Rep. Sylvester Turner and State Sen. Rodney Ellis of Houston.

State Rep. Garnet Coleman, chair of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, issued a statement from Austin in support of the march, saying, "It is unfortunate that, in the year 2004, people still have to march for their right to vote in their county of residence."

During the 2000 presidential elections, it seemed hard for some to believe that there was such obvious fraud in Florida. It seems even more unbelievable that in 2004, the struggle continues for such a basic, democratic right--one that rich, white propertied men won following the so-called 1776 War for Independence.

The students at Prairie View deserve the support of all progressives and workers in order to strengthen anti-racist, class solidarity.

The nationally oppressed youth in this country, as demonstrated so clearly by the Prairie View students, have the knowledge of their history and the courage of their forefathers and foremothers and will not allow a racist district attorney to deny them their basic right to vote. When they chanted "Here we come, Kitzman, here we come," they let this racist county official know that they're ready and willing to fight the power. n

Reprinted from the Feb. 19, 2004, issue of Workers World newspaper

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