Wednesday, May 4, 2016 Congressman James E. Clyburn
Dear Editor, The day of May 8, 1966, is forever seared in my memory. In addition to seeing Martin Luther King, Jr., in person…
for the first time since October, 1960, when I first met him on the campus of Morehouse College in Atlanta, there are two things I vividly remember about that day. First, there was light intermittent rain throughout the whole day, and second, we were in the middle of an athletic field.
My wife Emily and I had traveled from Charleston with four of our white friends; Brad and Sandra Fowler, Laura Martinez, and Bob Williamson. We all piled into the Fowlers’ light and dark beige van and headed to Kingstree to listen to Martin Luther King, Jr. deliver his famous “March on the Ballot Boxes” speech – one of only a handful of speeches Dr. King would make in South Carolina in his lifetime.
There was a sense of hope in the air that day which was not dampened by the weather. After all the tension that had been rising over the past few months, his speech was one of the first signs that things could get better. Leading up to his speech in Kingstree, Dr. King had led many meaningful marches as a way to influence change. In fact, this was a little over a year after he and my colleague, John Lewis had led marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, one of which precipitated the fateful “Bloody Sunday,” March 7, 1965. That event was the catalyst that moved President Lyndon Johnson to call for passage of the “1965 Voters Rights Act.”
In his “March on Ballot Boxes” speech, Dr. King encouraged thousands of citizens to head to the polls and exercise their right to vote. He believed that having the right to vote allowed citizens the power to influence change. I personally believe that power is still alive in our political system today. Unfortunately, many of my generation seem to have lost their focus and too many of the younger generation seem not to understand the relationship of voting to those things that really matter in our lives.
A lot has changed since that Mother’s Day in 1965. Some might say Dr. King would be proud of the progress we have made since then, and I certainly am. But others might say that, if Dr. King were alive today, he would be greatly disappointed, and I certainly am. I don’t think he would be disappointed in how we are progressing socially. But I am certain he would be disappointed in our low voter participation and low high school graduation rates.
As we gather to celebrate the 50th anniversary on May 8, I hope that we will take note of what is and is not happening around. I hope that we will re-focus our efforts and find ways to reignite the flame of hope that burned so brightly that day. I hope that we will see the value of getting involved in our respective communities and confront the challenges facing our nation today.
In the words spoken by Dr. King on that day, “Let us march on ballot boxes…so men and women will no longer walk the streets in search for jobs that do not exist…
“Let us march on ballot boxes until brotherhood is more than a meaningless word at the end of a prayer, but the first order of business on every legislative agenda…
“Let us march on ballot boxes until every valley shall be exalted, till every mountain and hill shall be made low, until the rough places are made plane and the crooked places straight and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed…
“Let us march on ballot boxes until we are able to send to the statehouses of the South men who will do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with their God. Let us march on ballot boxes.”
“And your plan better include voting – not just some of the time, but all the time. It is absolutely true that 50 years after the Voting Rights Act, there are still too many barriers in the country to vote. There are too many people trying to erect new barriers to voting. This the only advanced democracy on Earth that goes out of its way to make it difficult for people to vote. And there’s a reason for that. There’s a legacy to that.
But let me say this: Even if we dismantled every barrier to sing, that alone would not change the fact that America has some of the lowest voting rates in the free world. In 2014, only 36 percent of Americans turned out to vote in the midterms – the second lowest participate rate on record. Youth turnout – that would be you – was less then 20 percent. Less than 20 percent. Four out of five did not vote. In 2012, nearly two in three African Americans turned out. And then in 2014, only two in five turned out. You don’t think that made a difference in terms of the Congress I’ve got to deal with? And then people are wondering, well, how come Obama hasn’t gotten this done? How come he didn’t get that done? You don’t think that made a difference? What would have happened if you had turned out at 50, 60, 70 percent, all across this country? People try to make this political thing really complicated. Like what kind of of reforms do we need? And how do we need to do that? You know what, just vote. It’s math. If you have more votes then the other guy, you get to do what you want. It’s not complicated.
And you don’t have excuses. You don’t have to guess the number of jellybeans in a jar or bubbles on a bar of soap to register to vote. You don’t have to risk your life to cast a ballot. Other people already did that for you. Your grandparents, your great grandparents might be here today if they were working on it. What’s your excuse? When we don’t vote, we give away our power, disenfranchise ourselves – right when we need to use the power that we have; right when we need your power to stop others from taking way the vote and rights of those more vulnerable than you are – the elderly and the poor the formerly incarcerated trying to earn their second chance.
So you got to vote all the time, not just when it is cool, not when it’s time to elect a President, not just when your inspired. It’s your duty. When it’s time to elect a member of Congress or a city councilman, or a school board member, or a sheriff. That’s how we do change our politics – by electing people at every level who are representative of and accountable to use. It is not that complicated. Don’t make it complicated”
US Minorities Civil Rights Timeline 1863-1963 (ProPresObama.org Civil Rights Timelines ™)
US Minorities Civil Rights Timeline 1964-2016 (ProPresObama.org Civil Rights Timelines ™)