By Samaria Bailey
Fifty-five years ago, the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and civil rights leaders watched former President Lyndon B. Johnson sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a law to protect Black people, who were terrorized and intimidated for trying to exercise their right to vote.
Now, in 2020, with a pivotal presidential election approaching, activists and scholars say African-Americans should not only reflect on the moment, but continue the work of protecting Black voters’ rights.
“I think it’s a landmark moment for politics and an opportunity to make real the dreams and promises of Dr. King,” said Aaron Smith, Ph.D., tenured track assistant professor in Temple University’s Department of Africology and African American Studies. “We need to honor the legacy of those who made this [Act] possible.”
Smith, who hosts the Monday morning show, The Source, on WURD 96.1FM/900 AM, said in this election year, Black people should pay special attention to certain issues.
“I think it’s less about the Act and more about the fact that this election, more than any other in our lifetime, stands to have the chance to have a political paradigm shift in the way America conducts business within and around the world,” he said.
“One issue that everybody should be engaged in is climate change and the divestment in the fossil fuel energy and the turning away from using fossil fuels. If we don’t have a planet, then there is no way to get reparations. [Then], Medicaid for all – there are millions of people that don’t have medical coverage. There are people dying because they lost their job and their [healthcare]. African-Americans are disproportionately affected by subpar Medicaid coverage.
“The planet is at stake,” he added. “If we don’t rely on wind, water or solar power, then the country can face irreparable damage or like Flint, where the residents are drinking brown water and neurotoxins. And now immigration – Trump has added more African nations to the travel ban, so the same people who thought immigration wasn’t a Black people issue now have their wake up call.”
Kendra Cochran, Director of Civic Engagement for Philadelphians Organized to Witness Empower and Rebuild (POWER), noted there are still threats to the right to vote, from “blocking off streets that the polling place sits, to more systematic methods” of [voter] suppression.
“The Voting Rights Act was put into place to [prevent] things we see happening now – voter suppression, keeping people from being able to express themselves,” she said. “In Pennsylvania, it’s happening through gerrymandering, mail in ballots and absentee ballots not being counted. It’s happening through prohibitive messaging around black and brown communities that make them feel disenfranchised.”
She said one of the most prevalent misconceptions is that returning citizens can not vote.
“They have been indoctrinated that they cannot vote because of their mistakes,” Cochran said. “Some have committed crimes they feel will prevent them from having the right to vote. [But] there are voting laws that permit you to vote. If you committed a misdemeanor, you can vote in elections. Felons, once you have served your time and have been released by the state, you can vote again.”
Cochran said POWER is involved in several efforts to educate voters and register people, mainly in neighborhoods that have low engagement.
“POWER is participating in relational outreach,” she said. “We are doing voter registration in our congregations and communities around our congregations. We are giving education around the offices that are up on the ballot at that time and info on what the office function should be and how you should get yourself registered.
“We focus on low participation areas in Philadelphia — we have been in the 14th , 20th, 37th , 47th and 12th wards – door knocking in those areas and then we have congregations placed throughout Philadelphia doing that work,” Cochran added. “We are trying to normalize voting as a part of the civic process, more so than making it an event. When we go, there is some resistance but the longer we spend in those communities, we gain trust, build relationships and are able to overcome certain barriers because of that.”
Anthony Monteiro, Ph.D., organizer of the Saturday Free School, and a former African-American Studies professor who specializes in the writings of W.E.B. DuBois, said the key to improvements in voter engagement among Blacks is candidates that speak directly to their issues.
“If you look at local elections, what we see is 70 to 75 percent of registered voters in Philadelphia — the majority of whom are Democrats, do not even turn out to vote,” Monteiro said. “We see a decline in Black participation on the local level. Of course it was very dramatic in 2016 because the presumptive victor Hillary Clinton lost and because the turnout in Philadelphia was 44,000 votes less than in 2012 when Obama was on the ballot — the way I read that is yes the right to vote is important but on the other side you have to have someone to vote for.
“This is not just a problem for Black people but for all American people,” he added. “More and more people are not feeling there is anything to vote for, so along with that right to vote there has to be a political system that does not reward the candidate with the most money but gives the people a legitimate choice. The passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a good thing as far as it goes but it is not sufficient to address the deeper economic and social problems that black folks face in this country, including the criminal justice system, jobs, gentrification and endless wars.”
Samaria Bailey is a correspondent for The Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.