Election Day is six weeks away. In August, I began a three-part series on why you must vote. Last month’s column talked about the critical issues like access to healthcare impacted by the individuals we elect into office. This month it’s personal. It’s about us and how Black voter apathy is simply wrong in light of our history and the current attacks across the country on our right to vote.
Let’s start with our history. Prior to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, African Americans across the country, but particularly in the South, were systematically prevented from exercising their right to vote. Methods both “legal” and illegal were used to prevent Blacks from having a say in the political system that governed their lives. African Americans who attempted to vote were faced with bullying, ridicule, prohibitive fees, violence and in some instances death. My own grandfather who lived in Mississippi was told that in order to vote he had to recite the Bill of Rights to the Constitution from memory.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 made all the previously “legal” methods used to bar Black voters from the polls illegal and gave us the power of the federal government to force our way into the voting booth. The bill led to African Americans becoming a political force; led to Black elected officials and judges and, ultimately, to the country’s first Black President. African Americans came out in force behind then candidate Obama in 2008 and played a critical role in sending him to the White House. And now today, as the first Black President seeks re-election we are seeing a new assault on the voting rights of African Americans, led by people elected in the wake of high Black voter apathy during the mid-term elections of 2010.
History repeats itself. We entered this election season with voter ID and other types of voter suppression laws in 17 states that could deprive an estimated 700,000 young people of color the right to vote, according to a new study by the University of Chicago. Another study shows that 25 percent of Blacks lack the ID being required in some areas compared to 16 percent of Hispanics and 9 percent of Whites. A Texas judge struck down a law that would have required voters to show a photo at the polls, calling it racially discriminatory. This week, a judge in Pennsylvania is expected to rule on whether voters in that key swing state could easily obtain state-issued ID cards in time for Election Day. Across the country, but particularly in critical swing states like Florida, Virginia and Ohio, efforts are underway to limit the Black vote. Our history and the current attack on voter rights ought to tell us something. If Black votes mean nothing, if African Americans have no political power, no ability to influence or effect government, why are people so intent on preventing us from voting?
The Black community has more to lose than it could ever hope to gain by boycotting this election. During the Civil Rights Movement, boycotts were used as leverage. I assure you that not voting isn’t going to give you a leg up on anything. As you participate less and less in the process, you might find the country moving away from the things that matter to you.
It’s your community. It’s your economic security. It’s your child’s education. It’s your heritage to fight for the right to vote. This is personal. It’s been less than 50 years since the Voting Rights Act outlawed discriminatory voting practices following decades of protest, humiliation, injury and bloodshed. And here we are, still fighting. My grandfather, a United States citizen, was never allowed to vote; something he regretted his entire life. Unfortunately, he was not alone. Millions of African Americans also never got that chance. The intent of voter suppression laws is as transparent today as it was when my grandfather was denied the right to vote. Our history and our present are bright beacons reminding us of the power of our vote. How can we side with those who would hold us back and waste it? The National Urban League is fighting back through its Occupy the Vote initiative, encouraging people to register and making sure voters have the proper identification. In Illinois, the Chicago Urban League is doing its part by registering voters at our headquarters at 4510 S. Michigan Avenue Monday through Saturday through October 9. Election Day is on Tuesday, November 6. I encourage you to honor our history and fully participate in our democracy. This time and every time, it’s personal.
Andrea L. Zopp is President and CEO of the Chicago Urban League.