As a Department of Justice attorney charged enforcing voting rights during the Obama administration, Laura Coates says she saw countless ways in which the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was being undermined.
"People went to great lengths to try to engage in voter intimidation, whether it meant trying to move polling places to known Klan locations [or] changing or attempting to change the Election Day practices," she says. "Jurisdictions ... would try to advertise their elections on a different day than Election Day on Spanish language [radio] stations."
Coates saw voter rolls being purged, and instances where jurisdictions pretended that widespread voter fraud was taking place. And, she says, it wasn't just happening in Southern states.
"[It was] also in jurisdictions you wouldn't expect," Coates says. "We would investigate places in Washington state and California and Philadelphia, in the Northeast and all through the country. And so the perception that Jim Crow only flew below the Mason-Dixon line when it came to voting rights was actually a fallacy."
To make matters worse, it seemed like lobbyists and elected officials at both the state and federal levels would often interfere, rendering investigations futile.
"They would ... put their thumb on the scales in terms of which jurisdictions we looked at [and] which jurisdictions we were proactively investigating," Coates says. "It was frustrating for me to [see] the politics of how we prosecute cases."
Coates moved out of the Civil Rights Division and instead became a federal prosecutor. But while she had felt like a hero as an advocate for voting rights, she sometimes wondered if her new position made her a traitor to her people.
"I was viewed as an agent of The Man," she says of her role as a federal prosecutor. "[I was] considered and viewed and conflated with people who, for the public's perception, were against the communities of color, were against Black people, were trying to harm them in some way."
Coates eventually left the DOJ altogether. She now teaches law at George Washington University Law School and is a senior analyst for CNN. Her new memoir is Just Pursuit: A Black Prosecutor's Fight for Fairness.
On feeling called to work for civil rights
I revered the heroes of the civil rights movement, those who are the sung and unsung heroes. ... For me, when I thought about who my heroes were, it was those people who saw an injustice, thought about a way to solve it, took advantage of every different aspect of our government to do so, and advocated for those who didn't have a voice. And for me, I wanted to be and walk in those shadows, in those footsteps, and feel as though I had given back in some small, yet meaningful, way to those who had given so much to me.
On how the dilution of voting rights puts American democracy in peril
Democracy is absolutely in peril, not only because of the Big Lie [that Trump won the 2020 election] that questioned the integrity of our electoral system, but also because it's a lie that jurisdictions were, in fact, believing that there was widespread voter fraud. In many respects, the jurisdictions that have already tried to claw back the Voting Rights Act and have tried to codify different aspects of this lie of widespread voter fraud, they wanted to do it before Donald Trump. They wanted to do it before the 2020 election. They just find it convenient to be able to capitalize on this Big Lie because now it had the platform and gravitas of a sitting president of the United States. But our democracy is in peril every time we claw back the gains of the Voting Rights Act, because we dilute voting power, we dilute voting strength, we undermine the philosophy of one person, one vote, and we pretend that race has no impact — and that in and of itself is a lie.
On being seen as a hero in her community when she was in the voting rights division – and as a traitor when she became a prosecutor in the criminal division
I did not appreciate ... how the two roles were in such stark contrast in terms of public perception. When you are a civil rights advocate and civil rights trial attorney in the Department of Justice, you are presumed the advocate on the side of the people who are most impacted by discrimination.
As a federal prosecutor ... I noticed from the very beginning the ways in which, when I'd be inside the courtroom, I would see the ways in which people would question my allegiance. Was it to the United States of America? Was it to the Black community? Was it to the Department of Justice? Whose side was I on? And I would often be criticized by my defense counsel counterparts about how somebody who has an interest in civil rights, as a Black woman, how could you be on the side of prosecutors?
On her relationship with the police, as a Black prosecutor
I worked very closely with the police. They were completely critical to the ability to prosecute cases, whether it's through their testimony, through their evidence gathering, through their help in contacting and being a go-between for witnesses and others. But I always met them with a healthy level of skepticism from having been and continuing to be a Black woman in America. I'm the daughter of a Black man. I'm the wife of a Black man. I am the mother of a Black girl and a Black boy growing up in this world, and I have been a student of history and a student of the present, and I'm trying to ensure that I can have an impact on the future. ...
I look at [police officers] through the lens of a skeptical juror who is questioning whether they have followed the Fourth Amendment, whether they have used the right amount of force, whether their statements sound more like the regurgitation of a script or genuine observation. And that was always a difficult needle to thread, to, on the one hand, know that you must rely on them — and also to doubt them based on your own personal and professional experience that sometimes, like everyone else, they are fallible.
On what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. means to her
When I think of Dr. King, the first thing that comes to mind is going to his museum down in Atlanta and looking at the number of times he was arrested. Now that might seem an oddity to people. Mostly, we think about his speeches and the impactful words, and he was an eloquent orator, and he was obviously deserving of all the accolades as it relates to his speechwriting and his sermons. But for me, I think about the number of times he was a civil rights first responder, ... the number of times he went into the battlefield, the number of times he pulled an entire race out of the wreckage, the number of times that he subjected himself to physical violence. It's the notion that myself, as a mother, looking at my young children, when all I want to do is grow old and watch them grow even older, that he had to accept the inevitability that he would not do the very things every parent wants to do. And why? Because he was thinking not only of his own children, but my children and my children's children. ...
Every time I think about his death, I think to myself, God, was that how young he was? And every year that I live beyond that, I thank him, because the life I have is because of the choices he made, because of the discomfort he experienced. And I just love this man for making those choices and for aligning his moral compass with what he was willing to do.
Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the web.