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Edelman writes: "This year, let's all be alert. Be active. Use your power as one citizen and vote. Don't let anyone take it away from you. Let's mount an urgent and systematic state-by-state fight against the latest kinds of disenfranchisement."

Marian Wright-Edelman, founder of the Children's Defense Fund. (photo: David McNew/Reuters)
Marian Wright-Edelman, founder of the Children's Defense Fund. (photo: David McNew/Reuters)

The Politics of Power and the Precious Right to Vote

By Marian Wright Edelman, Reader Supported News

14 July 12


he first fact that we need to understand is that America has a longer history of disenfranchisement than it does of enfranchisement. What do I mean by that? At the time of the American Revolution when America was finding its footing, more than two-thirds of the people who resided in the colonies couldn't vote. You had to be white, you had to be male, you had to have property, and you had to be privileged. This history of America is a history of political exclusion... It was because people were trying to control power from the very beginning."

As students and parents at Children's Defense Fund Freedom Schools® sites across the country study our nation's history this summer, they'll learn about the long struggle for voting rights in our nation and the importance of the vote to a vibrant democracy. The college servant-leaders who are teaching the pre-K-12 children came to CDF Haley Farm near Knoxville, Tenn. in June for national training week. One of their speakers was Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries, Associate Professor at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at the Ohio State University. He spoke to them about the history of the black struggle for the vote and how the fight to control power by controlling the vote has a very long history in America. That struggle is still very evident in 2012.

Dr. Jeffries described a common narrative about African American history that woefully simplifies most of the last 150 years. That narrative says all barriers to voting were settled for good once President Johnson and Congress "gave" black citizens the Voting Rights Act in 1965 and now that we have President and First Lady Obama and their two beautiful children in the White House we've reached a wonderful "post-racial" moment in America. But as Dr. Jeffries carefully explained, this oversimplification has always been a myth -- or worse, a lie -- and to ignore current threats to voting rights shows an ignorance of history and a willingness to jeopardize our democracy and future.

Dr. Jeffries explained to our college leaders how Frederick Douglass and others insisted on giving African Americans the vote along with freedom when slavery was finally abolished, but the moment of promise after the 15th Amendment didn't last long: "How is it possible that African Americans after slavery can have the vote in hand and then 100 years later from 1865 to 1965 are still fighting for the vote? We have to understand that American history is not linear or upward progress. American history is about peaks and valleys." After the brief peak of black elected officials during Reconstruction right after the Civil War ended, the next valley began when Mississippi called a constitutional convention to look for ways around the 15th Amendment. The result was decades of new voting laws across the South requiring literacy tests, "grandfather" clauses that prohibited anyone from voting if their grandfather hadn't, and other "colorblind" policies whose main purpose was actually to keep people of one color from participating in our democracy.

But during the long years of Jim Crow, African Americans never lost sight of the prize: "They redirected their energy, put it into community development, put it into land acquisition, put it into education... [but] they never gave up on the vote itself," Dr. Jeffries said. By the 1960s the active fight for voting rights was back on the front burner and once again people were risking and giving their lives in order to be able to vote. Fifty years ago, civil rights organizations, pushed by young Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organizers, came together to form COFO, the Council of Federated Organizations, in order to work together more effectively to secure the vote in Mississippi's closed society.

They challenged the Jim Crow Mississippi Democratic Party by later establishing the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to challenge the segregationist regular democrats in Atlantic City, New Jersey in 1964. They held mock votes and ran candidates to demonstrate their desire for a fair voice in the electoral process. Some lost their lives and suffered brutal harassment and jailings over the next several years including Medgar Evers and three young civil rights workers: James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. Although the sacrifices of the Civil Rights Movement are still fresh wounds for all of us who lived through it, for another generation of Americans they already are becoming ancient history. It is important that we teach our children and adults our history so that we do not repeat it or take our rights for granted by failing to exercise them.

Far too many Americans take the right to vote so much for granted they don't even bother to exercise it. Dr. Jeffries warned that the same old threats are once again reorganizing under different policies and new names right now: "Those who were opposed to the empowerment of African Americans... never gave up trying to rob African Americans and people of color and poor people of the franchise... It's a continuous line that has never been disrupted, and today, as we move into the 21st century, we have to locate and understand that the efforts of voter suppression now are an extension of that effort then." He also warned that today's methods are more subtle and precise:

"Before... the goal was to take the vote away from all African Americans. But if you understand how electoral politics works, particularly at the federal level but even at the local level, you understand that you no longer need to take the vote away from everybody ... All you have to do is take out a couple thousand. That's what voter suppression is about, and that's what we're dealing with today, these efforts around voter identification, these efforts around felony disenfranchisement... Just make it hard enough for [a few or some people] not to be able to go down on Election Day to vote, and you can carry the day. And they propose this legislation in state after state after state under the guise of democracy. It's the most undemocratic thing that you could do. And this isn't about party affiliation. It's Democrats one day, it's Republicans the next day, but it's all anti-democratic."

California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin have passed laws making it more difficult to vote. People of color, seniors, poor people, and the disabled face new barriers that we must take every step to overcome this year.

There has never been a safe time in America to drop vigilance about attempts to shut people out of the vote, the lifeblood of democracy. As Frederick Douglass made clear, "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will." He warned that we can never take anything for granted, especially black citizenship. Although it may be wrapped up in new euphemisms and better etiquette, he reminded that it's the same old snake. So this year, let's all be alert. Be active. Use your power as a citizen and vote. Don't let anyone take it away from you. Let's mount an urgent and systematic state-by-state fight against the latest kinds of disenfranchisement and counter every single effort at voter suppression with redoubled commitments to voter education, voter registration, and voter turnout. Our democracy and our children's futures depend on it.

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+3 # Innocent Victim 2012-07-14 17:13
The "precious right to vote" is nonsense when voters have no choice but the duopoly, which not only controls the national candidates but the state legislatures and therefore the ballot. In my district, the 10th US House district of Florida, I can vote for C.W. Young or a Democrat who has no chance of winning. The Florida House and Senate are controlled by business interests and the professional associations. Workers, consumers are unrepresented. This is a worthless election. Ms Edelman means well, but she is thinking of a different era when we had a flawed republic. Now we have an illegitimate government that has undermined the Constitution and commits war crimes. Nothing can be done. This is a dark age.
+4 # Lolanne 2012-07-15 08:27
Quoting Innocent Victim:
The "precious right to vote" is nonsense when voters have no choice .. . Nothing can be done. This is a dark age.

I disagree, IV. I often get as discouraged as you sound, but I can't just sit on my hands and watch what the dirty repugnant ones are trying to do to our country. Right now, it seems to me that all these attempts to disenfranchise so many of us is the most despicable thing they're doing, but it's also something we can effectively fight. We can volunteer with our states' progressives and help in many ways: help provide transportation to those who don't have a way to get that photo ID; help with fund-raising efforts so that in states requiring a fee to get it, those who cannot afford it will not be left out; we can point out to friends, relatives, etc. at every opportunity all the tricks the greedy old pigs are using to disenfranchise us.

And once we have elected a democratic/prog ressive majority in Congress and reelected Pres Obama, we can hold their feet to the fire and DEMAND the changes we need. If they don't listen, we can kick them out next time around.

But it all begins with the power of the vote. Don't give up -- VOLUNTEER!
+8 # independentmind 2012-07-14 19:17
Something that struck us here in Ohio is that you have to declare whether you are a Democrat or Republican - so you only get to vote on one ticket that is handed to you by the poll worker - so much for secret ballot! This system also does not allow you to vote for a person you want for the job or to represent you if they are on another ticket than the other people you may want to represent you. Very frustrating and heaven help you if you are registered as an Independent!
+2 # paulrevere 2012-07-15 09:23
I must also remind everyone of the Argonne Labs half mile away with a ten buck gizmo on a laptop manipulation of the vote count on a Diebold machine.

And then there is the ridiculous vote count disparities in Ohio in '04, things like counties ending up with vote counts greater than their registered voters, entire blocks of votes just plain lost and on and on aka Florida etc.

If they own the machines, all they have to do is grab the key ones, make 'em close but to their advantage and all the registering of voters in the world becomes less than a paliative.
+3 # Bigfella 2012-07-15 20:22
Time you lot got UN monitors on your elections...she is right! And the people need to turn out and vote GREEN!
+3 # easter planet 2012-07-15 22:46
This entire article is more distraction from the fact the the USA is the only major country in the WORLD without a federal election. (I am writing from Canada). You have no federal election rules, you have no federal voter's list. You should be up in arms about this, and demand a door-to-door federal voter enumeration and federal voting rules that apply across the whole country and get real and get your election over in 6 to 8 weeks. We can send people to help you set up proper elections. If you had a real government, last year when Obama was essentially defeated by the tea-party he should have employed some of the emergency powers put in during the last days of the Clinton admin, declared an emergency, imposed federal voting rules, performed a federal voter enumeration, and called an immediate election. Instead you have been sitting through the longest lame-duck session in history. What you have is a sick joke instead of a proper election.

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