On Monday night I attended a screening of Freedom Summer. The film chronicles the organizing of 700 mostly white student volunteers who assisted in registering African American voters in Mississippi during the summer of 1964. The film follows as organizers are intimidated, threatened and killed by white Mississippians who saw enfranchised blacks as a threat to their way of life. For those of you who have seen this film or know the story, it was well before the introduction of Fannie Lou Hamer, a woman whose mere presence on the screen drew applause from the audience. She would appear and the venue became church with shouts of “TELL IT!”. Anyway, it was sometime before she approached the dais of the 1964 Democratic National Convention, I couldn’t help but notice the striking similarities between August of 1964 and August 2014.
Since the death and ensuing protests of 18 year old Michael Brown, the largely black population of Ferguson, Missouri has learned that the way for their collective voices to be heard is to protest with their feet to the pavement. For the people of Ferguson to move up they must be on the ground. I spoke with a friend recently about how powerful it has been to see these citizens take matters into their own hands after being beaten down (figuratively, literally) by police. The current events in Ferguson are a prime example of what happens when your voice is stifled for far too long.
Among accounts of abuse by police and the eradication of the first amendment by arresting journalists, was the report that voter registration drives have begun somewhere around the W. Florissaint area near where the protests are occurring. Apparently, Missouri Republicans have taken offense to the people of Ferguson - I must reiterate, the BLACK people of Ferguson - becoming registered voters. The protests will end and the only way for those who live in this small city just north of St. Louis to be heard is to vote. It really is that simple and yet, much like the people of Mississippi in 1964, allowing this particular bloc of voters to participate in the democratic process is seen as a threat. In Mississippi it was because the voters were black and there was a fear that by allowing for them - us, really - to vote would mean an overwhelming number of black elected officials. As for Ferguson, I can only assume that the reason Republicans have been outspoken against voter registration drives is because African Americans favor one party over the other. Though, I must add that what is currently happening shouldn’t be about Democrats or Republicans and that we should all be outraged by a blatant disregard for the Constitution. The disregard I have mentioned before but it bears repeating.
During Freedom Summer three young men were killed by the Klu Klux Klan. A woman had a noose wrapped around her neck and is threatened with dragging. People were beaten. All of this in the name of voting and here we are, fifty years later with people who want to register to vote still being denied that opportunity. The job of those who represent Ferguson, Missouri is to speak for constituents. The beauty of America is that we live in a place where democracy should be paramount. The onus isn’t solely on those who are denying the right to register but also those who have been denied. The city of Ferguson has notoriously low voter turnout which has left the city with a disproportionate number of white representatives in local government even though the population is largely black. Why? Because of low voter turnout. It isn’t solely a matter of signing up on a piece of paper but showing up on Election Day is when it truly counts. People died for the right to vote, so it is our responsibility to take that baton and push forward.
Voting isn’t exciting but it is necessary. I hate being the person who implores people to go out and make themselves heard but I will because if you do not, no one can do anything for you. Sometimes the only way to see the first sign of change is to go to the ballot box. We vote not just because we can but because in times like these, we have to.