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  • Sarah Hubbard

A History of Standing Up for Democracy

Government Accountability Project was co-founded more than 40 years ago by Louis Clark as a place for whistleblowers—individuals who choose to disclose information about serious abuses that violate public trust—to come for support and protection. Whistleblowers often serve as sources of inspiration due to their ability to show that each individual can make a difference through their courageous truth-telling. Louis Clark’s own story, from his work on the front lines of election protection more than 60 years ago to leading Government Accountability Project today, is now more relevant than ever.

Clark recalls:

It was June 1967, before I was old enough to vote, and I was one of two poll watchers in Clinton, Mississippi—a blue-collar suburb of Jackson. Ralph Wheeler, a Jackson State College student leader, and I represented the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. For the first time, a handful of African-American candidates were on the ballot, and we were hopeful that our earlier efforts to register Black voters throughout the area would yield at least one victory. That day at first we were able to help a few non-literate voters, but by early afternoon the morning wave of Black voters had trickled down to zero. We were quickly outnumbered by hostile white voters and election officials whose anger simmered as tension rose. Several FBI agents arrived on the scene and announced that not only were we in danger, but that we had to leave or risk being killed. With stubborn courage, Ralph refused to leave until finally the agents agreed to poll watch in our stead. FBI agents then escorted us through a throng of white racists who had gathered outside the precinct voting station.

The victory for Black candidates that the two young men had so earnestly hoped for did not happen that day. When they returned to the polls that November, they faced new challenges. The FBI had withdrawn its protection of civil rights workers, and the young men experienced a direct confrontation with the KKK that still haunts their memories.

Clark went on to become an ordained pastor, focusing on pastoral counseling. After opposing the Vietnam War by refusing a ministerial deferment and leaving the country, he returned to secure a law degree to work on government accountability issues in Washington D.C. In 1977, he helped the Institute for Policy Studies launch Government Accountability Project out of their work supporting Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg and Pentagon fraud whistleblower Ernie Fitzgerald. He became the first staff counsel and then its executive director. For over 40 years, he has dedicated his life to Government Accountability Project’s work of protecting whistleblowers and ensuring their disclosures make a difference.

Fast forward to the 2020 election, we are still bombarded with disturbing images of divisiveness. Voter suppression threatens the constitutional rights of all Americans, and will be devastating for those whose enfranchisement was already delayed. The U.S. Supreme Court, which largely abandoned minority voter protections a decade ago, is on the verge of further retreats. The Department of Justice has become the chief defender of the White House instead of the people. Are we destined to relive the same terrifying nightmare almost 60 years later?

Louis Clark co-founded Government Accountability Project because he saw the power that each individual can contribute to protecting democracy.  His origins of being on the front lines of fighting for free and fair elections for all citizens has now come full circle at Government Accountability Project with the launch of our Democracy Protection Initiative, which seeks to support all potential whistleblowers within federal, state, and local government who disclose threats to election integrity or to the transition of power should that be the will of the voters. By offering know your rights education and pro bono legal support to whistleblowers, the Democracy Protection Initiative applies the powerful methodology of protecting truth-tellers and leveraging their information in the service of protecting our elections and preserving a functional democracy.

Clark’s story of the 1967 election is representative of many who bravely stood their ground to protect the right to vote even when outnumbered. One brave individual can protect the right to vote and the functioning of democracy itself. Whistleblowers, through the Democracy Protection Initiative, are now backed by an army of over thirty national organizations who have joined as partners, including American Constitution Society, American Oversight, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Georgetown Law’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, Protect Democracy, Public Citizen, We The Action and dozens more—all recognizing the power of information from whistleblowers as an important antidote to the corruption that currently undermines the elections, the rule of law, and the Constitution itself.

To learn more about how you can help protect democracy and support potential whistleblowers, visit our Democracy Protection Initiative website. While this season presents challenges, we hope that our co-founder’s story inspires you as you make your own mark on history.

For more inspiration on overcoming voter suppression, check out this short film by Otis Moss III from our Bearing Witness allies in the faith community.


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