Remembering Our History
“Do What You Can, Where You Are, With What You Have” - Teddy Roosevelt
Conventional wisdom holds that young people (18-29 – “millennials”) are losing faith in their institutions, including government and are disengaged from politics. In a survey by the Harvard Institute of Politics (IOP), only 20% of millennials trusted the federal government to do the right thing all or most of time. The numbers for state and local government were just as bad – 28% and 33% respectively.
While nearly 70% of registered voters say they will definitely vote in November 2014, [Wash.Post/ABC News Poll – April 2014], only 23% of 18-29 year olds say they will be voting. [Harvard IOP – April 2014]. Why this disengagement from voting? Almost half (48%) of those surveyed believe that politics today are no longer able to meet the challenges we face or that elected officials do not have the same priorities that they have (58%). Given the recent performance (or lack thereof) of Congress, it is easy to see how we got here.
With young voters becoming an increasingly larger share of the electorate, this does not bode well for our democracy. But there is a glimmer of hope. In that same Harvard Institute of Politics (IOP) survey, it was clear that young Americans care deeply about their communities and see community service as honorable (70%) and a more efficient and personal way of making a change. That being the case, how can we connect youth passion with community service to the act of voting? History teaches us that the right to vote is a principle for which many have devoted and given their lives. In our history, I believe, is the answer to how we can teach a new generation that voting is a form of community service and the value and importance of voting as a tool for social change.
Remember our history - Lest we forget the sacrifices that were made
President Lyndon Johnson said that “[t}he vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men.”
At the adoption of the U.S. Constitution, there was no agreement on a federal voting standard and states were given the power to establish their own voting laws. Consequently, for most of our early history, the vote was reserved for property owning and/or taxpaying white men. Women, African-Americans, Native Americans, and others were denied this right and, as a result, lived in a state of political and social inequality, which, to a certain extent, continues today.
However, the fight for equality began almost immediately. Activists for ending slavery and for women’s rights came together at an 1848 women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York and adopted a resolution calling for universal voting rights. After the Civil War, the most costly struggle in our nation’s history (in terms of lives lost), the Fifteenth Amendment was added to our Constitution, prohibiting the denial of the vote based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude. It took another 50 years before the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified which prohibited denial of the right to vote based on sex.
While the passage of the 15th and 19th Amendments provided framework and legal basis for change, it was not inevitable. Despite the ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870, it was 95 years before the passage of Voting Rights Act (1965) which eliminated many of the barriers enacted by the states to obstruct the intended purpose of the 15th Amendment and to interfere with the right to vote.
Teach About the Struggle:
These changes did not happen in a vacuum. Dr. Martin Luther King told us that “[h]uman progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to work to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that time is always ripe to do the right thing.” Why We Can't Wait.
From Seneca Falls to Selma, men and women, too numerous to name, did the right thing and found the courage to fight for full citizenship. Fifty years ago, that courage was on display as students from many areas of the nation descended upon the State of Mississippi as part of the “Freedom Summer” effort to register African-Americans in the South. It was also present on March 7, 1965 in Selma, Alabama on the Edmund Pettus Bridge and other venues where citizens were fighting for the right to vote, the most important tool in a democracy.
We have to teach the stories of those from Seneca Falls to Selma who stood up for equality. Their work, their struggles helped to ensure the passage of the Voting Rights Act without which, there might not be a Congressional Black or Hispanic Caucus or even an Obama Presidency. However, given our low voting rates, it seems like we have forgotten the significance and purpose of these struggles and take for granted the importance of our voting rights, which, arguably, are less secure today than they were in 1965.
Engage Your Students and Community:
Last week, veterans of the voting rights movement gathered in Mississippi for the 50th Anniversary of the Mississippi Freedom Summer. In a “Statement of the Occasion”, the following call to action was issued to those of us who would assume the mantle of change:
“With the doves outnumbering the ravens in the parliament of our hair, this is our unbent and unbowed voice calling to those who must succeed us as radical agents of change. We want them to know that ours was more than theory and faith. It was more than uplifting rhetoric and freedom songs – It was pragmatic and tedious, dangerous and deadly, not only for us but more importantly for the locals who believed in us with their lives. May this passage of time reveal what the present once obscured. It comes as a special comfort to know that we were far better then than we could have ever known then. And it remains for our successors to become better than they can now foresee.” Tim Jenkins
It is time for us to “pay it forward” – to reclaim our freedom.
Congressman John Lewis, a veteran and true hero of the struggle, teaches us that: “Freedom is not a state: it is an act. It is not some enchanted garden perched high on a distant plateau where we can finally sit down and rest. Freedom is the continuous action we must all take, and each generation must do its part to create an even more fair, more just society.” Across That Bridge.