The American Civil Rights Movement never died. Indeed, the ebb and flow of the movement in the 1960s and since has been driven by two forces: discontent and a desire for progress. Today, we have entered a new phase of the movement, one born out of a massive show of dissatisfaction experienced throughout 2015 and voiced with particular intensity by African Americans. This phase however is more technologically savvy, propelled by hashtags and viral updates. It is loud enough to get the attention of those vying for the presidency and it is powerful enough to provoke meaningful change.
A lot has already happened to catalyze the acceleration of the movement: hearing the President of the United States say that we are not cured of racism; realizing that a total breakdown of local government led to the poisoning of a city with a Black population of over 56 percent; having no words for the child who asks about the police shooting of yet another unarmed child and coming to terms with what mass incarceration is doing to Black families and communities.
Through all of these events, we must keep up the momentum of the movement and to do so, we need to understand the significant roles that our voices play in achieving progress. In other words, we must comprehend the power that lies in exercising our fundamental right to vote.
Each day, our elected officials set priorities and make decisions that directly impact our lives. An elected sheriff can oversee the arrest and the treatment of incarcerated civilians. An elected secretary of state can introduce election reforms that make voting easier or more difficult. An elected prosecutor can make recommendations to a grand jury. An elected school board member can influence which educational programs are funded or slashed. Each election, whether national or local, presents opportunities to help get candidates of choice voted into the offices that impact our civil rights.
Census data show that only 21 percent of African Americans voted in 2014. Of the registered Black voters who did not vote in 2014, 20 percent said their vote would not make a difference and 37 percent said they were just “too busy.” Adding those missing Black votes back into the active voter population could significantly influence an election outcome and, therefore, local and national leadership.
Black voters and Black women, in particular, turned out in unprecedented numbers in 2012 to vote for their candidate of choice for U.S. President. African Americans outvoted whites in 2012, and African-American women turned out in rates higher than any other cross-section of race, ethnicity, and gender. That high level of interest and mobilization was undeniably influential. Every election should garner that much interest.
While some states are making voting easier by enacting reforms like same-day voter registration, early voting or online voter registration, other states are further increasing barriers to the ballot. Strict voter ID laws, unnecessary voter registration requirements, and improper removal of voters from the voter rolls are some of many examples of how certain states are making it harder to exercise your voting rights as an American citizen. Voter protection resources like Election Protection’s 866-OUR-VOTE voter helpline, led by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, exist to #ProtectOurVote and help voters navigate those barriers, many of which disproportionately impacts African Americans. Never take for granted the unshakable defiance that has always been an intrinsic quality of the Civil Rights Movement.
In his iconic I Have a Dream speech, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., recognized that some Black voters feel like they have “nothing for which to vote.” Anyone who has an interest in seeing this invigorated Civil Rights Movement surge ahead has reason to go to the polls. Lay the groundwork for progress by making your voice heard whenever an opportunity to vote arises. While we certainly have a long way to go, I want to be clear that I love our country and I believe it is great because we have a participatory democracy. But that only works when “we the people,” and really, all the people, are able to participate. Unfortunately, since the Shelby County v. Holder ruling (the Supreme Court’s decision about the Voter Right’s Act of 1965), minority voters face an uphill battle to have their voices heard. All eligible voters should have the opportunity show their patriotism and be involved in our democratic process.
Hill Harper is an award-winning actor and bestselling author, and also national spokesperson for voting rights, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.