‘It feels like the old Jim Crow days,’ says Little Rock Nine member on voter rights

By: - October 22, 2021 6:09 pm
Carlotta LaNier

Carlotta LaNier, the youngest of the Little Rock Nine, listens as Mayor Michael Hancock poses a question to her during the National Nonpartisan Conversation on Voter Rights in Denver on Oct. 22, 2021. (Screenshot/City of Denver)

A leader in the civil rights movement who worked to desegregate Arkansas schools as a teenager isn’t optimistic about the state of voter rights for people of color in the U.S.

“It feels like the old Jim Crow days as I grew up,” said Carlotta LaNier, the youngest of the Little Rock Nine, a group of trailblazing African American high schoolers who were the first to enroll at an all-white high school. LaNier referred to new restrictions on voting passed by state legislatures around the country.


LaNier spoke during a panel on voter suppression — part of the National Nonpartisan Conversation on Voter Rights, an event hosted by Denver Mayor Michael Hancock. He and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, in an effort to call attention to restrictive voting laws around the country, brought dozens of high-profile local and national leaders from around the country to the Mile High City for a series of panels and breakout sessions on voter rights this week.

Republicans “really need to step forward and speak up” on voter rights, LaNier said. “Whether you’re here today or a closet Republican, I say step up and have your voice heard.”

The Conversation on Voter Rights was billed as nonpartisan, but no Republicans were observed in attendance.

“Just as many Republicans were invited as Democrats,” Hancock said in response to a reporter’s question about the lack of GOP representation. A spokesperson for Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman, who is a Republican serving in a nonpartisan office, told Newsline that Coffman had been invited to the event but could not attend due to a scheduling conflict.

Dawn Howard, community engagement coordinator with the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition, also spoke during the panel on voter suppression.

Anything from the lack of a wheelchair ramp at a polling center to confusing language on a ballot can block people with disabilities from voting, Howard pointed out. “Open your eyes,” she said. “Switch your thinking.”

“There may be equipment that may allow people to vote independently, but poll workers need to know how to use those machines, and what to do if there’s a malfunction,” Howard added.

Other panels during the event covered topics such as leveraging city infrastructure and engaging the private sector.

The event was funded solely through private donations, according to Hancock’s office. The main sponsors included Western Union, Amazon, Turner Construction, Magic Johnson Enterprises, Loop Capital and Sheraton Hotel.

“We have a fierce, fierce sense of urgency,” Hancock said during a Friday press conference in between panels and breakout sessions. “What just happened this week in the U.S. Senate should be an embarrassment for all Americans.”

Hancock referred to the stalemate in the Senate over the Freedom to Vote Act. The voter rights bill would make Election Day a national holiday and set minimum standards each state must have for elections, including two weeks of early voting and an option for same-day voter registration.

The Freedom to Vote Act is opposed by all 50 Senate Republicans, who blocked it from advancing. All 50 Democrats in the Senate support the bill, but they need 60 votes to overcome the filibuster and proceed to debate and a vote. With the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris, Democrats could change Senate rules to eliminate the filibuster, but the party lacks consensus on the issue.

“Unfortunately in the great state of Texas, the state is moving in the wrong direction when it comes to people having access to the voting booth and the right to vote,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said during the press conference.

A new law passed this year by the Texas Legislature prohibits the distribution of mail-in ballot applications, expands the role of poll watchers and bans drive-thru voting, among other measures. The law unravels many of the policies that Harris County, home to Houston, had implemented to encourage turnout among voters of color.


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Faith Miller
Faith Miller

Reporter Faith Miller covers the Colorado Legislature, immigration and other stories for Colorado Newsline.