Following two terms of America’s first black president, our nation is at a historic turning point. If you doubt your place in determining what path we’ll go down, let me take you back to another historic time.
If it had been left up to the powers that be in the segregated South of the 1950s and 1960s, when I was growing up in segregated Birmingham, Alabama, I would not have received the opportunity to achieve a decent education or move beyond the marginal circumstances of my family. Then, George Wallace was governor and Eugene “Bull” Connor was police commissioner in Birmingham. Both were mean men who were intent on keeping “coloreds” in our place.
To them that task meant the denial of human and civil rights, equality and fairness, at any and all costs. Not only were African Americans disrespected and treated with disdain, we were also denied the right to vote. Under the leadership of my pastor, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, I was one of the teenage “foot soldiers” who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I spent six days in jail taking my stand against racial injustices and for civil rights and equality.
Those early-life experiences taught me much, including the importance of voting. In fact, I believe that the worse threat to democracy is a disengaged electorate, and the knock-down, drag-out fight in this presidential election certainly has the power to turn us off to voting. However, just as African Americans were not deterred from the voting booth under the threat of Jim Crow, we must not fail now to make our voices heard through our vote.
Yes, vote we must on November 8. We have seen the power of black voters in action – when we show up to the polls. In 2012 African Americans actually turned out in greater percentages than whites for the first time in history, a turnout that helped President Obama win his re-election bid against Mitt Romney.
This time around the stakes are higher than ever. In presidential and statewide races, we must turn out in record numbers and vote to better our futures, and those of our children. Just as Dr. King urged back in Montgomery in 1965:
Let us march on ballot boxes until race-baiters disappear from the political arena….
Let us march on ballot boxes until we send to our city councils, state legislatures, and the United States Congress, men who will not fear to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God.
C. Virginia Fields, MSW and civil rights activist is the President and CEO of the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS, Inc. She served as Manhattan Borough President and a member of the NYC City Council for over 18 years.