When a new Louisiana voting rights bill was signed into law last year, thousands of ex-felons were on their way to regaining their right to vote. Almost immediately after returning from prison in December, Shreveport resident Charles Blue went to the registrar’s office.
“My vote is my power,” Blue said in a statement from Black Voters Matter Fund. “Every opportunity I have to lift my voice at the polls on the state and federal levels I’m going to take.”
To lift up even more voices, Black Voters Matter Fund is embarking on an eight-city bus tour through rural and urban Louisiana as part of its ongoing mission to register ex-felons to vote. The Atlanta-based nonprofit is in the work of re-enfranchisement for the long haul, and formerly incarcerated people are doing the organizing along the way.
“It will be led by people who were impacted by these issues, formerly incarcerated people lead this effort,” co-founder LaTosha Brown said. Black Voters Matter Fund has played a pivotal role across the country as a voter rights and registration advocacy group.
The new law, which took effect March 1, applies to anyone who is off probation or parole, who has been on parole for at least five years, or is on probation and hasn’t received a new conviction.
Ladelle Henderson, for example, participated in Baton Rouge’s local elections less than 30 days after he got his voting rights back. It was on March 30 when Henderson, who had served a 25-year sentence for armed robbery, was able to walk to the polls for the first time in decades. He is now a member of the nonprofit organization VOTE, working with the group’s Baton Rouge chapter to get others like him to the polls.
“It makes a difference,” he said in a statement.
With stops including a local public housing area, a barbecue, and a festival, the Black Voters Matter Fund tour will be centered around “community reintegration.” “We’re community-centered,” Brown said. “While we’re focusing on formerly incarcerated people, it’s a family-oriented event so as family, friends, and communities we can stand in our power.”
Brown said it was important for Black Voters Matter Fund to target both rural and urban communities, especially considering the black communities who she says are left out of conversations on rural issues. “Rural America is not all white,” Brown said, and the issue of criminal justice reform is just as rural as it is urban.
The largest maximum-security prison in the country is the Louisiana State Penitentiary, commonly known as Angola, as the plantation which previously occupied the location was named. The plantation was named after the west-coast African country from which many enslaved people were brought to Louisiana. Angola could also be considered a company town, with prison employees living in the homes surrounding the prison.
“There are enormously high rates of people incarcerated in rural communities,” Brown said. “What we see in America is building jails and prisons has become a form of economic development in rural communities.”
And Brown says she especially wants to target a rapidly growing segment of the country’s incarcerated population—black women. “We won’t let those voices, the women who’ve been impacted by this issue, to be marginalized,” Brown said. “The majority of organizers we’re working with are black women.”
The voter registration bus tour will make its first stop on Sunday in Baton Rouge and will continue on to Lafayette, Opelousas, Alexandria, Shreveport,Monroe, and finally New Orleans.
Alexandra Arriaga is a staff reporter at Prism focusing on voting rights and criminal justice. You can follow her on Twitter at @alexarriaga__.