By Jamal Watson
By mid-afternoon last Saturday, Alicia Blakely had already registered dozens of new voters.
Blakely, the president of the Savannah Chapter of the National Action Network aggressively courted the unregistered voters the old-fashion way: she simply set up a table filled with voter registration cards and went after them one by one.
“You registered to vote, baby?” she queried the passersby who attended the Live Oak Park Reunion, one of Savannah’s largest annual picnics headquartered in the city’s African American community. “Time is running out. We need to get you registered before October.”
November’s election, according to Blakely, is too important for anyone to remain on the sidelines. Part of her task has been to educate locals about their voting rights.
“A lot of convicted felons don’t know that they can vote here in Georgia, but they can” says Blakely. Working with other civil rights groups like the NAACP and Amnesty International, the Savannah chapter of NAN has been leading the way in voter registration efforts. The group has registered more than 300 new voters over the past few weeks and has plans to launch new drives over the next few weeks.
“We’re grassroots,” she says, adding that about 30,000 of Savannah’s eligible voters still remain unregistered. According to city officials, a large portion of the unregistered, are African Americans and Latinos. “Right now, we’re even negotiating to go into the high schools to register students who will be eligible to vote come November.”
Founded in 2007, the Savannah chapter of the National Action Network has become an active presence in low country Georgia. The chapter was founded after the tragic killing of David Willis, a 22-year-old father of three children who was shot and killed in downtown Savannah by local police officers.
Shortly after the shooting, NAN’s President and Founder, Reverend Al Sharpton arrived in town to help raise money for Willis’ family and to call for an end to police brutality in Savannah and across the nation. Speaking before a crowd of about 300 who gathered at Second St. John Baptist Church in August 2007, Sharpton said that the murder of Willis was unjust.
“The fact that this man’s child was in the car, the fact that he was unarmed, the fact that you can even suggest that in the presence of his baby he’d be doing something illegal. It’s like we’re always guilty until proven innocent,” Sharpton told the community at the time. “Maybe we are beginning around this country to wake up, and realize that a lot of things we thought had changed had not changed. Seems like you follow the rule book and you go by the training on one side of town and you shoot first and ask questions later on our side of town.”
Though a Georgia grand jury refused to indict the police officer that shot and killed Willis, community activists like Blakely and others, used the tragic killing to reaffirm their commitment to civil rights work. They organized a NAN chapter where today, with about 30 members strong, they’ve taken on a broad range of issues, including efforts to redistrict parts of Savannah. They also helped to train a spotlight on the 2011 execution of Savannah resident Troy Davis. NAN members say that they have also been instrumental in helping the city—which now boast an African American population of about 57 percent—elect its first black mayor and chief of the police and fire department.
“People are so excited to hear that there is a National Action Network chapter here in Savannah,” says Blakely. “Politicians know that we are watching what they do and we’re demanding accountability.”
Blakely says that Sharpton’s three visits to Savannah over the past few years has helped to mobilize and inspire the community. “They love him,” she says. “When you call his name, everyone takes notice, including the elected officials.”
Mike Jones, who is running for Sheriff in November’s general election, says that the NAN chapter has been one of the most visible civil rights groups in Savannah over the past few years.
“The work that they’re doing has had a positive impact,” says Jones, who worked his way up through law enforcement as a police officer and the commander of the reserve unit. “A lot of the issues that impact our everyday residents, they are bringing to the forefront.”