Despite the fact that Tennessee has one of the most restrictive photo ID requirements for voting in the nation, the state is rarely discussed when voter ID is the topic. However, Tennessee’s law will now allow college students to use their university identification cards to vote, just like in Texas and North Carolina, the poster children of voter ID. In each case, it seems, students decided they were tired of being unseen and unheard.
Last week, during a legislative hearing in Tennessee on voter ID, members of the Nashville Student Organizing Committee stood up and began singing “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Us Around,” a well-known anthem of the Civil Rights era. According to The Tennessean, the Committee consists of students from the historically black Tennessee State and Fisk universities, the latter of which was a major training ground for young civil rights activists in the 1950s and 60s.
The scene must have drummed up too many civil rights memories for state Representative Joe Carr, chairman of the committee. Carr had law enforcement officials escort the students out of the chambers, saying he wouldn’t let the students “hijack” the proceedings.
The students’ action is just the latest in a series of attacks against the law, which could affect upwards of 170,000 Tennesseans who don’t have photo ID. State legislators have tried to nip away at it in the legislature, while others have tried striking it in court—both efforts have been unsuccessful. Memphis Mayor A. C. Wharton even tried to exploit a loophole that he thought would allow people to use their library cards to vote, but to no avail.
What these students are doing seems also a replication of what’s been happening in Texas, North Carolina and Florida where black college students have been leading demonstrations against voter suppression. In North Carolina, the Vote Defenders have been monitoring elections and helping defend students whose residencies have been challenged due to their college domiciles. In Florida, the Dream Defenders made their own stand at the state capitol while engaging in a massive voter registration drive. Meanwhile, black college students have been holding it down in Texas for years, given the constant attacks on their voting rights.
What we may be witnessing is something of a black college activism renaissance, the likes of which we’ve not seen in a major display since the demonstrations to end apartheid and free Nelson Mandela from jail in the 1980s. Those protests went beyond HBCUs to include even Ivy League colleges and white students. We are seeing some of that same solidarity today from students at Duke University and the University of North Carolina. This is necessary. It’s not the responsibility of black students alone to step up and fight for voting rights that impact everyone, especially women and elderly voters. This is the real March madness we should all be suiting up for.