The HISTORY of the POWER in Your Vote
As-Salaamu Alaikum (Peace Be Upon You)
On November 8, 2016 there was an election for the President of the United States. Plenty of people stayed home. It has been calculated that the number of people who stayed home and did not vote were more than the number of people that voted for either of the two candidates i.e., Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Trump won in a stunning manner after exit polls leading up to the election had Clinton ahead. He has no mandate, nor experience in governing. The country appears to be in turmoil as are the lives of many Americans who are coming to realize that housing, jobs, public safety and our futures are at stake with each decision the current under-prepared President makes.
With a base of about 38% of Americans who voted for Trump, it is this segment of Americans for whom the President of the United States acts bizarrely almost every day. Yet, there are tens of millions of other Americans who are aghast at the dismantling of almost every policy and/or regulation established by the administration of former President Obama. President Obama stated that he was going to be the President for all of America, even those who had not voted for him. In contrast, Trump is dividing America. At the beginning of 2018, it was said in some arenas that Trump is leading the world backwards.
One of the first things President Trump did in office at the start of 2017 was to establish a Voter Fraud Commission claiming "millions of people had voted illegally" in the 2016 election. Trump inferred these votes went to Clinton given his intent was to prove that he won the election legitimately. There have been few reports over the last decade of anyone having voted fraudulently. The Voter Fraud Commission was disbanded in early January 2018 because there was nothing for it to do i.e., they could not find these fraudulent votes. However, Crystal Mason, an African American woman living in Texas was recently sentenced to five years in prison for voting while she was on probation. She wasn't aware she was not eligible to vote because she was still being supervised and when offered a provisional ballot when her name could not be found, she completed it. It was later reviewed and she was arrested. She told the truth when in court that she "didn't know she wasn't allowed to vote" because she was on probation. Her case in going to be appealed. She has stated that she "will never vote again." The circumstances surrounding her conviction are incompatible with compassion and reason. She did not intend to commit fraud. Those that have been formerly incarcerated can vote in some states. Texas is not one of them. In New York State one can vote if formerly incarcerated for a felony and is on probation but not until after parole has been completed (see: https://www.nyclu.org/en/issues/voting-rights/felon-voting-rights).
As we can see through just these two examples: voting has consequences. The consequence desired or intended by those who vote, whether perceived as an obligation or a duty, has always been representation. Voting, as a right, was not originally in the US Constitution. It appears as the 14th Amendment in 1868 stating: "All persons born within the United States are citizens and guaranteed rights and privileges."
In 1870, almost a decade after the the administration of President Abraham Lincoln enacted the Emancipation Proclamation that ended slavery in the US, the 15th Amendment to the Constitution granted African American men the right to vote. It declared that the "right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." As a result of the suffrage movement, all women were granted the right to vote in 1920 in the 19th Amendment to the Constitution i.e., "No citizen shall be abridged of their right to vote based on sex."
Everyone's access to the ballot box is however not equal. Lack of early voting, knowledge about absentee voting, rules and deadlines related to registering to vote are not common knowledge given the importance of being informed about who can and cannot vote. One must be at least 18 years of age on the date of the election; a citizen meeting residency requirements and have adhered to rules that enabled one's registration to remain valid, among other rules. Registration purging, where voter's registrations are cancelled happens locally and not just in states in the South. In the 2014 mid-term election more than 100,000 registered voters were purged in Brooklyn, New York. Purges can happen when one has not voted within a limited amount of time (see: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/23/us/politics/supreme-court-ohio-voter-purge.html). Purges can happen by accident or they can be intentional and claimed to be an accident as happened in some states like Ohio (see: https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/this-ohio-case-could-change-who-gets-purged-from-the-voter-rolls/)
Not voting has consequences, too. Were it not for those who risked life and limb, and for whom it costs some their lives, we would be living in a very different America-- than even the mess it is presently. In a recent New York Times article titled Vote. That's Just What They Don't Want You To Do (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/10/opinion/sunday/go-vote.html) several issues are pointed to as barriers to voting. Voter suppression includes rules like having to have a Voter-ID, typically a government issued identification like a driver's license or limiting access to election sites by limiting how many exist or where they are located. If potential voters cannot access the voting place-- they can't vote. If they do not have adequate identification which sometimes costs money to obtain, they can't vote. Disillusionment is a barrier when people become detached from the political process. Thinking that one's vote doesn't matter or won't make a difference. Unfortunately, this idea is fostered by government and some candidates running for elective office by money that pours into elections and claims of them being "rigged." Failing technology is when the voting machines don't work or too few are available for the number of people attempting to use them in the limited hours that polls are open. With so many items to assume about voting that might provide an unfavorable opinion or attitude about it, the truth is that without the votes and drudgery of many African Americans to secure the right to vote, African Americans in the US would not be where we are today. Without the courage to press on and become registered and then turn out, the US would not have had the first African American President elected for not one, but two terms.
When the world functioned with much less technology than it does today, there were leaders who were consistent in their efforts to motivate people who were "Negro," "Black", "African-Americans," "people of color," etc. to register to vote and use their vote to bring about much needed change in their lives and communities. The march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, about which the 2016 movie "Selma," depicts the real life drama that unfolded as about six hundred people led by Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) head Rev. Hosea Williams and a young leader of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) John Lewis (who now represents the state of Georgia as a Congressman), tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge at that point of their journey. The march was about demonstrating at the state capitol in Montgomery to protest the right to vote in Alabama. Before that, people of Selma and throughout Alabama were trying to register to vote but they had been met by defiant forces in the person of local Chief of Police William Clark among others. Less than a month earlier, on February 18, 1965 Jimmie Lee Jackson, a Church Deacon, had been shot by state troopers during a march in support of voter registration in a nearby town named Marion. He had been trying to protect his mother from a trooper's nightstick. Eight days later, he died at a Selma hospital.
When the people arrived at the bridge on March 7, 1965 they were met by State troopers and local law enforcement in what we know fifty three years later as "Bloody Sunday." As told by Congressman John Lewis, he "thought he was going to see death that day." He was badly beaten about the head and other parts of his body. Upon hearing of the beating and gassing of African-Americans trying to march for the right to vote, which was televised and viewed by many Americans, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. dispatched telegrams from Georgia to clergy and other right-minded individuals across the country requesting they come to Selma so another attempt to cross the Edmund Pettus bridge could occur. Hundreds of people from around the country started arriving in Selma almost overnight. President Lyndon B. Johnson, having been made aware of the circumstances became involved and pressured Rev. King not to march across the bridge again because a restraining order had been obtained against it i.e., breaking the law would not benefit the situation and might worsen it.
Nothing could stop the crossing of this bridge because the prize was of too great a value. There were laws that African Americans could vote that were not being upheld. Jim Crow laws that included poll taxes, a Grandfather clause (had your grandfather been able to vote then you could vote) and nonsensical literacy tests e.g., how many jelly beans were in some large jar, were preventing African-Americans from being able to register. The bluster and threat of vehement racist attitudes awaited Black people as they entered registration offices. Protests and demonstrations were how most civil rights leaders, the Churches and organizations of that time strategized to change public opinion.
In 1964, just a little less than a year earlier, the South had experienced Freedom Summer where white and black college students mostly from northern states, traveled to the state of Mississippi to help register as many African Americans to vote as they could. During this summer, three of these young college men named Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney were brutally murdered while working to help the cause for Blacks to register to vote in Mississippi. A few years earlier in Ruleville, Mississippi, Fannie Lou Hamer had been cast off the farm she had worked on with her family for most of her life because she had been fearless to register to vote. After finally passing the literacy test on her third try, not only did she register "for herself," as she told the landowner when he insisted that she go back and withdraw her registration-- she informed him that she"did not register for you (him)." Through harassment and physical beatings from which she never fully recovered, she remained busy fighting for causes that affected the people of Mississippi. Later, largely through her efforts she co-founded and served as Vice-Chair of the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party (MDFP). In a memorable speech titled "We're On Our Way," delivered to a Mass Meeting at the Negro Baptist School in Indianola, Mississippi in September 1964 (hear it at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ex45Hw11JBQ), she boldly stated: "We want ours and we want ours now. I question sometime, actually, has any of these people that hate so—which is the white—read anything about the Constitution? Eighteen hundred and seventy, the Fifteenth Amendment was added on to the Constitution of the United States that gave every man a chance to vote for what he think to be the right way. And now this is ’64 and they still trying to keep us away from the ballot. But we are determined today, we are determined that one day we’ll have the power of the ballot. And the sooner you go to the courthouse, the sooner we’ll have it. She encouraged and helped thousands of people in Mississippi to register to vote. Ms. Hamer arrived at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, with MDFP delegates and demanded to be seated and recognized. When it was her turn to speak, President Johnson who was running for President for the first time having succeeded into the office after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, held an arbitrary press conference in order to assure that her speech was not televised. To the crowded audience of delegates, she stated: "All of this is on account we want to register, to become first-class citizens, and if the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America. Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives are threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings in America?" The MDFP was offered two seats at the convention which they refused when Ms. Hamer said "they were all tired." Later, the entire white delegation walked out. Ms. Hamer later ran for elected office, served as a delegate at the 1972 national convention and continued to work in civil rights causes until her health failed her. One of her most known quotes is "I am sick and tired of being sick and tired."
Two days after the infamous Edmund Pettus bridge beatings, on March 9, 1965 Rev. King led more than 2,000 marchers, including hundreds of clergy who had traveled to Selma in a hurry, to the site of the previous Sunday’s attack. They stopped, knelt and prayed. After prayers they walked back to Selma, avoiding another confrontation with state troopers and avoiding the creation of an issue in defying a court order. King was criticized by many for not continuing on that day however he gained some support from President Johnson, who issued a public statement: ‘‘Americans everywhere join in deploring the brutality with which a number of Negro citizens of Alabama were treated when they sought to dramatize their deep and sincere interest in attaining the precious right to vote’’ President Johnson promised to introduce a voting rights bill to Congress within a few days. But not before a member of the clergy Rev. James Reeb, a white Unitarian minister who had traveled to Selma from Massachusetts to protest and support Rev. King was attacked that evening by several local whites. He died two days later, contributing to rising national concern over the brutality that had been observed on the news and occurring in Alabama. Shortly afterwards, Alabama Governor George Wallace was contacted by President Johnson who pressured him to protect marchers and support universal suffrage (the right to vote).
President Johnson addressed the Congress and in a televised address identified himself with the demonstrators in Selma by stating ‘‘Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome’.’ . On March 17, 1965 President Johnson submitted voting rights legislation to Congress.
A march that was sanctioned by the federal government left Selma on March 21, 1965. It was accompanied by hundreds of federalized Alabama National Guardsmen and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents. Each day, the march covered between 7 to 17 miles. They were entertained by celebrities such as Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne when they camped in the yards of supporters along their journey. The earlier order by Judge Johnson limited the number of marchers to 300 marchers but on the last day of the march as they neared Montgomery the number of demonstrators had grown close to 25,000. They were joined by Assistant Attorneys General John Doar and Ramsey Clark, and former Assistant Attorney General Burke Marshall, among others. They arrived with the federal government's protection. A large rally was held on the steps of the capitol in Montgomery. It was at this time that Rev. King proclaimed: ‘‘The end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. And that will be a day not of the white man, not of the black man. That will be the day of man as man." Afterward, while trying to deliver a petition to Governor Wallace, they were turned away. That night, while ferrying Selma demonstrators back home from Montgomery, Viola Liuzzo, a housewife from Michigan who had come to Alabama to volunteer, was shot and killed by four members of the Ku Klux Klan. In the presence of King and other civil rights leaders on August 6, 1965 President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. After all it had taken for the Voting Rights Act to come to fruition President Johnson called the right to vote ‘‘the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men’’ . When Rev. King delivered his annual address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference a few days later, he noted ‘‘Montgomery led to the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and 1960; Birmingham inspired the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and Selma produced the voting rights legislation of 1965.’’
Plenty of people have suffered immense loss fighting for the right to vote not for just themselves but for their people and in truth, for all people. When the decisions of this nation are representative of the interests of the people of this nation, and not just a select segment of the population, we all can try to feel that there has been justice in a process that was fairly undertaken. The Voting Rights Act was initially set for five (5) years and was extended by subsequent amendments through Congress and signed into law by presidents in 1970, 1975, 1982, 1992, and 2006. In 2013, significant portions of the Voting Rights Act related to pre-clearance were determined to be unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court. What this means is that states would have to get clearance from the federal government before they can change any laws pertaining to voting. There are challenges still in the courts being appealed in several states. In short, nothing should be taken for granted with the Voting Rights Act particularly given the changing demographics of America occurring now and expected to continue into the next couple of decades.
Dr. King understood this half a century ago, which is why he considered the right to vote the centerpiece of the civil rights movement. In an article written by Dr. King that appeared in the New York Times in 1965 titled Civil Right No. 1 -- The Right To Vote (https://www.nytimes.com/1965/03/14/archives/civil-right-no-1-the-right-to-vote-civil-right-no-1-the-right-to.html) he states:
"Voting is the foundation stone for political action. With it the Negro can eventually vote out of office public officials that bar the doorway to decent housing, public safety and jobs and decent integrated education. It is now obvious that the basic elements so vital to Negro advancement can only be achieved by seeking redress from government at local, state and federal levels, To do this the vote is essential.
When the full power of the ballot is available to my people, it will not be exercised merely to advance our cause alone. We have learned in the course of our freedom struggle that the needs of 20 million Negroes are not truly separable from the needs of 200 million whites and Negroes in America, all of whom will benefit from a color-blind land of plenty that provides for the nourishment of man's body, mind and spirit. Our vote would place in Congress true representatives of the people who would legislate for the Medicare, housing, schools and jobs required by all men of any color."
We know that the ideals of more than 50 years ago may seem quaint in contrast to the needs of Americans in the 21st century. They weren't. They were strong words from men and women who were very focused on objectives related to a determination to be treated as citizens and not in a second-class manner. The need today has become greed without concern to who goes without and doesn't have. We have observed how influenced pockets of selected voters who vote in blocks can result in the worst candidate being elected-- when race is a motivating factor i.e., Trump. Just a few years earlier, when race was still a factor regarding the election and re-election of a Black President, the appearance of greed was not so obvious. Other factors were at play as the nation's economy was upended. People lost their homes, jobs, pensions and livelihood just as Obama became President. President Obama was able to bring the majority of the country together and the economic downturn was somewhat stabilized through bail-out giveaways to banks and people who were rewarded with funds to buy new cars to save the industry, etc. Then jobs started coming back, education was a focus (influenced by the expansion of charter schools); people felt hopeful.
50 years later we can say without hesitancy, on a date marked as the day Rev. Dr., Martin Luther King was martyred for a cause that has benefited Black and white Americans, people of all persuasions and languages as the right to vote extended to various populations that were not a part of the powerful and privileged. While America is quite far still from his dream, and currently another agenda entirely is being imposed upon many of us, Dr. King's life and his life's work was not at all in vain. He laid it out for us. We have to become proficient at its execution. Many have paid for your vote to exist. They paved the way. The price was costly. The lives lost were priceless. They are among the greatest of Americans with the history to prove it. Please see: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/02/how-to-kill-a-revolution/552518/
If your vote isn't powerful, why are some trying to prevent you from having and using it? When pulling that lever or marking that scanner sheet remember how many people are behind your vote. It's why your vote matters!
Note: The South East Queens Muslim Collective is hosting a Voter Education/Registration Workshop on Saturday, April 7, 2018 from 11:00 AM to 2:00 PM at the SUNY-Queens Educational Opportunity Center located at 158-29 Archer Avenue, Jamaica, NY. The workshop is free of charge and open to the public. For further information, please call 718-663-4644 or email SEQMC at firstname.lastname@example.org
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