Much is made of the importance of voting in the Black community, as quick reference is usually given of the sacrifices that many Black folks and others made to secure the franchise. But too much is made of simply taking part in the process, without understanding the purpose and the power of the franchise. And the focus on voting and voting alone as the cure for what ills the Black community (and other oppressed communities for that matter) makes us bad students of voting rights history. Black people were not just seeking the vote and voting, but voting to acquire real power and control over their lives.
Ironically it was protest that forced the hand of the US government. There was no national ballot referendum on the question of the Black ability to vote
Incidentally, voting was already a constitutional right guaranteed by the 15th Amendment, yet federal administrations, one after another refused to enforce the law.
Black folks understood since their days as newly freed people that they vote would give them the opportunity to come and go as they pleased, to sell their labor to the highest bidder and to seek and gain livable wages, secure quality public education for their children, equal protection under the law, the ability to decide who gets what, and to be safe in their persons without the threat of white violence.
The vote to them represented something real, an opportunity to address real-life problems, not just to feel like they took part in the process, or to elect someone who looked like them. but a chance for real change.
Voting in a very narrow way honors those who sacrificed so much, but the absolute best way to honor someone’s legacy to imitate them.
The Civil rights workers that entered the deep south including SNCC and others organized to use the vote to gain real power. In Lowndes County, Alabama, known then as Bloody Lowndes for its history of White terrorism, SNCC organized an independent political organization, the Lowndes County Freedom Organization.
In a pamphlet entitled, “The Story of the Development of and Independent Political Movement on the County Level, explaining how the organization came to be and its function, it relates that the people choose their own independent political formation.
“In the fall of 1965 the Negroes of Lowndes County, Alabama, decided they would have to start their own political party. They called it the Black Panther Party of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization.”
The pamphlet continues: “We had meetings to decide what we were going to do with the vote. Some of us wanted to be Democrats,’ But according to the pamphlet, that idea was rejected because, “the Democrats are the same folks that kept us out and down all these years.” The consensus was, “We want something of our own…something we could control.” (thus the party was ratified among the people and the Black Panther was adopted as its symbol.)
“Now [that] we have the vote, we want to control it,” they wrote.
Consequently, the organizers explained to the people the jobs of every office in the County and proceeded to run their own slate of candidates for each office. The thorough organizers even explained the process of how local politicians were corrupted by the rich and the power structure. Conversely, the Lowndes County Freedom Organization’s Black Panther Party’s candidates were much less likely to be corrupted, because they were of the people and shared the people’s desires, so there was little fear of being sold out by them because they were them, their aims were one and the same.
The Lowndes County Black Panther Party lost its first election due to cheating and threats and intimidation of Black voters by violent White Supremacists, but they were determined to press on and learn from their defeat. Here is what they gleamed from their loss:
“1. Poor people can nominate their own candidates. They do not have to vote for candidates named by rich people.
- If poor people controlled the tax assessor’s office, the rich could be taxed fairly. The money the County could collect from the rich people could be used for much-needed schools, roads, waters, sewers and other services.
- If poor people controlled the sheriff’s office, he could become a protector of the people, not a protector of the power structure.
- There are ways of dealing with most of the tricks in the power structure’s bag. The most common tricks are: physical violence, eviction, firing from jobs, buying out people with “war on poverty” programs, money and jobs and e1ection day cheating
- The best way of dealing with these tricks is for poor-peop1e to stick together. Only by sticking together through physical violence, ‘getting kicked out of your home or job, being ·tricked on election day, and the tempting lure of Government money can the poor people gain power–and hold it.”
Many of the folks we portend to honor by voting never got the opportunity. They marched, they sat in, they boycotted, they picketed, they fought back in ways that the ballot did not allow. And for them, the ballot was about much more than marking a spot or pulling a lever it represented as an opportunity to gain real power for the people!
What we learn from the ancestors is that having the right to vote is good. but organizing to vote for what one really wants and needs is better. Our forebears had vision, even the corrupt Frank Underwood understood this when he said, “imagination is its own form of courage.”
justice then peace