Thousands of church members are encouraged to show up dressed in black to vote at the Shelby County Election Commission at 157 Poplar Ave. at 3:30 p.m. on Thursday (April 14). A voter rights coalition is issuing the call after legal efforts failed to get more sites open on the first days for early voting in the May 3 election.

A voter rights coalition has targeted Thursday (April 14) for a “Black Out the Polls” protest.

Announced on Tuesday, the planned protest comes after Monday’s denial of a legal motion to force the Shelby County Election Commission to open multiple early-voting church sites for the May 3 election.

The Rev. Dr. Earle J. Fisher (TSD Archives)

“We are encouraging thousands of church members to show up dressed in black … to vote at the Election Commission Downtown, 3:30 p.m.,” said the Rev. Dr. Earle J. Fisher, founder of UpTheVote901.

“We want to show how ridiculous it is to keep our churches closed for early voting.”

At issue is the call to have more voting locations open on the first two days of early voting for the May 3 County primaries. Only the Downtown Election Commission office (157 Poplar Ave.) is scheduled to be open on those days, with early voting set to run from Wednesday (April 13) through April 28.

Other locations would open on April 18, the Monday following Easter Sunday.

Special Judge James F. Butler denied a motion Monday (April 11) for a court order directing the Election Commission to open all 26 sites across the county on opening day.

The request for injunctive relief was part of a larger lawsuit by the Memphis Branch NAACP, UpTheVote901 and the Black Clergy Collaborative that challenged the Election Commission’s plan for the start of early voting  as an unconstitutional effort at voter suppression.

Shelby County Elections Administrator Linda Phillips testified she relied on her staff’s statements that none of the churches serving as early voting sites would agree to open in advance of Easter Sunday, adding low turnout in past county primaries did not warrant having all 26 sites open on the first two days of the period.

Organizers of “Black Out The Polls” intend to clog traffic, inundate parking facilities, and create “impossibly long lines” at the Election Commission.

More than 20 churches are expected to participate.

“We started early to plan for the possibility that our lawsuit would be delayed,” said Fisher. “County judges, one after another, had to recuse themselves because of re-election bids. Our Black Out strategy is Plan B.”

A press conference in early March by the coalition warned that legal action would be taken if all early-voting church sites were not opened on April 13.

UpTheVote901, Memphis Branch NAACP, Black Clergy Collaborative of Memphis and the African American Clergy Collective of Tennessee stand united in the demand for the churches to be opened. Closures are all located in communities where a high number of Black voters live, according to Fisher.

“The Election Commission took it upon itself to make a decision for the Black church community,” said Fisher.

Other pastors who spoke at the early March press conference demanded that their churches be opened on day one of early voting.

“We were not asked anything about whether or not we wanted our churches closed during this week,” said Dr. J. Lawrence Turner, pastor of Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church.

“The decision was made for us, and we are saying, ‘Open our churches for early voting.’”

Whitehaven, Hickory Hill, and Westwood have been targeted for voter suppression, Fisher said. That’s where many of the city’s “Black voters” live.

He said there are “fewer” early voting sites in those three communities.

The Election Commission website lists several early voting locations in Whitehaven and South Memphis, and early voting sites in Southwest Memphis, Frayser, Raleigh and Hickory Hill.

“We warned that we would fight these closings in every way we could,” said Fisher.

“Litigation is not possible at this late date. ‘Black Out The Polls’ is our next, best strategy. We wanted to have a dialog with the commission, but no one ever reached out.”

Phillips insisted that the decision to close churches until Monday (April 18) was not made to suppress the vote. She cited a move to “maximize county resources.”

More than $200,000 would be saved by keeping the church sites closed, according to Phillips.

Memphis Branch NAACP President Van Turner Jr. said Phillips is saving money where “she has not been asked to save money.”

Turner, who is also a Shelby County commissioner, said the county would pick up the cost to open church sites.

Fisher said everyone in Shelby County is invited to join Thursday’s demonstration.

“Everyone who has already made a decision about who to vote for is welcome to join us Thursday, 3:30 p.m., at the election commission,” said Fisher.

“We intend to overwhelm them with our numbers.”

The protest was set for Thursday because of the forecast for severe weather concerns on Wednesday, the first day for early voting.