February 09, 2020 HUMAN RIGHTS

Human Rights Hero: Olivia Coley Pearson

by Sara Totonchi

In a blatant attempt to intimidate minority voters in rural Georgia, Olivia Coley Pearson, the first black woman to be elected city commissioner of Douglas, Georgia, was charged with—and eventually acquitted of—multiple felonies for simply assisting a first-time voter in 2012. 

Human Rights Hero: Olivia Coley Pearson

Human Rights Hero: Olivia Coley Pearson

Pearson’s life has been dedicated to the service of others. Political activism runs in the family: In the 1970s, Pearson’s mother served with the local NAACP and helped sue their home city of Douglas, Georgia, to gain more black political representation. 

Pearson’s mother lived long enough to see her daughter elected the first black woman on Douglas’s city commission, a position she’s held for the past two decades. A tenacious and outspoken advocate for the black community, Pearson pressed for equal employment opportunities in city government and took complaints of police abuse seriously.

Her tenure, unsurprisingly, had raised the ire of people in the city’s mostly white power structure by 2012, when she helped a first-time black voter understand how to work an electronic voting machine on the first day of early voting in Barack Obama’s re-election.

When the 21-year-old woman arrived at her local polling place ready to cast her first vote, she realized she wasn’t sure how to use the machine. She looked around for help and saw Pearson. Pearson told the young woman how to operate the machine and where to put her card. At poll workers’ request, Pearson signed a form stating she’d offered this simple guidance. It was a brief interaction, to which neither woman gave any further thought—until, in 2016, with another presidential election looming, Coffee County prosecutors charged Pearson with multiple counts of felony voter fraud. If convicted, she faced up to 15 years in prison.

No one accused Pearson of influencing another person’s vote or of physically touching their machine. Prosecutors claimed that because the young woman helped was not blind or illiterate, she was not legally entitled to any assistance whatsoever.

“Improper voting assistance” is not something for which people of means are typically prosecuted. But Pearson was a black woman working to hold her city accountable and empower others in her community to serve in government themselves. Her prosecution sent a not-so-subtle message of intimidation in a state where voter suppression takes many insidious forms.

The Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) began representing Pearson after her first trial resulted in a hung jury. One juror, a young black woman, had refused to find her guilty. When SCHR lawyers interviewed jurors from the first trial, another juror, upset that Pearson had not been convicted, freely used a racial slur and said that he did not believe black people should serve on juries. 

Some might think that blatant efforts to sideline black leaders and to suppress the black vote are relics of America’s distant past—but Pearson’s two-year ordeal with the criminal legal system says otherwise. “I was not going to say I had done something wrong when I knew I had not,” Pearson said. “I’m strong in my faith. I prayed . . . and I persevered.”

After two years under the weight of the bogus charges against her, the jury in Pearson’s second trial acquitted her in under 30 minutes.

An incredible amount was at stake. Had Pearson been convicted, she would have lost her job, her pension, and her liberty. An entire community’s confidence in their ability to vote without fear of prosecution would have been shaken. Pearson showed incredible bravery, refusing to accept any deal from the prosecution, standing, as she has for years, for her community, at great personal risk to herself.

The stress of Pearson’s trials took a toll on her health. In 2019, she campaigned and won her city council seat for the first time in 20 years of serving unopposed. Six weeks before the election, she had to have two stents placed in her heart. Her doctor advised her to drop out of the race, but she refused to step down.

“I’m a fighter,” Pearson said. “I could not quit like that.” 

In this year’s elections, Pearson will, again, be driving people to the polls.

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Sara Totonchi

The executive director of the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR), which is based in Atlanta, Georgia. SCHR works for equality, dignity, and justice for people impacted by the criminal legal system in the Deep South.