All In: The Fight for Democracy

As testified by an authority no less impressive than Andrew Young, former mayor of Atlanta, Georgia and erstwhile United States Ambassador to the United Nations, Martin Luther King Jr. “shed a tear” when President Lyndon Johnson repeated the title words of the gospel-inspired civil rights anthem, We Shall Overcome while urging congress to pass the game-changing Voting Rights Act of 1965. 

This is but one of the multitude of fascinating historical facts that is revealed in the Amazon documentary production All In: The Fight for Democracy. Directed by Liz Garbus and Lisa Cortés with a screenplay by Jack Youngelson this instructive 102 minute film provides a disturbing, sometimes shocking retrospective on the long struggle for equal voting rights for all American adults. 

For example, at the peak of postbellum American Reconstruction, a period that extended from the end of the Civil War in 1865 til 1877, African-American voter registration was at nearly 70%. But by the middle of the 20th century, subsequent to the Allied victory over the Nazi’s and the end of World War Two, when the USA was thought of as the exemplar of freedom and democracy, voter registration among African-Americans in Mississippi had dipped to just 3%. 

Why? How? One reason for this descent in participatory democracy and free and fair elections is due in no small part to domestic terrorism perpetrated by organized groups of white supremacists, such as the Ku Klux Klan. On instance of such murderous story is conveyed by Professor Carol Anderson, author of White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide,(a winner of a National Book Critics Circle Award); Professor Anderson is one of many “talking head” authorities given voice in this troubling documentary. 

It is the story of Maceo Snipes, an Army veteran who bravely battled Nazism during the Second World War and had assumed the earned right to practice democracy himself upon his postwar return to his home in Taylor County, Georgia. In spite of threats, such as scribbled messages that read “You Vote, you Die,” Mr. Snipes’s will to cast a ballot would not be daunted. He became the only African-American person to vote in his county in the election of 1946. Days later three armed vigilantes paid a viscous visit to Maceo Snipes’s home, riddling his body with bullets from their firearms. “The message was clear,” says the somber Professor Anderson. 

All In… has in its focus the 2018 gubernatorial election in Georgia, which matched Democratic candidate Stacy Abrams against Republican candidate Brian Kemp. Mr. Kemp also happened to be the Georgia Secretary of State, the official who oversees and processes elections in the state. Mr. Kemp won the contest by a narrow margin of 55,000 votes of nearly 4 million ballots cast but only after imposing a number of voter suppression strategies that included the purging of 1.4 million people from Georgia’s list of eligible registered voters. Without this interference Ms. Abrams would likely now be the first African-American woman serving as governor of a state in the history of our nation. 

As it is, Ms. Abrams is convinced that Georgia’s election was tipped through an unsavory process of manipulation and has refused to concede her loss but instead maintains that her race was lost due to citizens being required to “jump through hoops” to vote. Even though the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution were passed for the purpose of enfranchising people of color with the sharpest tool of democracy — the right to vote — embedded powers have and continue to undermine that right through poll taxes, literacy tests, gerrymandering and the like.

Indeed, in June of 2013 a 5-4 split decision by the U.S. Supreme Court (under Chief Justice John Roberts) disemboweled huge provisions of the ‘65 Voting Rights Act, holding that the act was an intrusion of the federal government into states’  rights. What has followed is a deluge of voter suppression efforts beginning with Texas and its Voter ID law and various state actions to purge voter rolls, suppression of student voters and, notably, in Ohio where one can be removed from voter rolls if they’ve not cast a ballot within a certain period of elections. 

All In… is more pedagogy than performance aimed at informing more than entertaining. Nevertheless, for everyone concerned with the maintenance of American democracy, this documentary is a necessary lesson to behold. May it inspire us, in John Lewis’s famous phrase to “get in good trouble” as we work to form a more perfect union. 

  • Production: An Amazon Studios release of a Story Syndicate production. Producers: Liz Garbus, Lisa Cortés, Stacey Abrams, Dan Cogan. Executive producers: Jon Bardin, Julie Gaither.
  • Crew: Directors: Liz Garbus, Lisa Cortés. Screenplay: Jack Youngelson. Camera: Wolfgang Held. Editor: Nancy Novack. Music: Gil Talmi, Meshell Ndegeocello.
  • With: Stacey Abrams, Carol Anderson, Andrew Young, Eric Holder, Luci Baines Johnson, Debo Adegbile.