Op/Ed: Turnout in Recent Special Election: A Disgrace to Dr. King's Civil Rights Legacy
(PRINCE GEORGE'S COUNTY - April 27, 2008) - As a student of history, I am struck by a quote that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made in which he said, “that the most revolutionary thing that any citizen can do is to be an active and engaged citizen.” It is amazing to me that we have just commemorated the 40th anniversary of Dr. King’s death and nothing has changed. What is most shocking and disappointing is that during the same week of this anniversary- the citizens in Prince George’s County’s District 5 had an opportunity to exercise their right to vote and they failed to do so. What a slap in the face to civil rights martyrs such as: Medgar Evers, A. Phillip Randolph, Justice Thurgood Marshall, and Fannie Lou Hamer. These fearless warriors dedicated their lives to eradicating injustice.
On March 7, 1965, Dr. King led a civil rights march in Selma, Alabama across the Edmund Pettus Bridge with activists including: John Lewis, Andy Young, Ralph Abernathy, and Hosea Williams. Dr. King was leading the marchers to Montgomery to galvanize the black vote. Alabama Governor George Wallace lined the bridge with state troopers to prevent the march. This historic day is commonly known as “Bloody Sunday” because of the violence that was inflicted upon the demonstrators. They were viciously attacked with clubs and tear gas. John Lewis’ head was cracked open and he suffered a concussion. The television coverage that resulted led President Johnson to send the Voting Rights Act to Congress for approval the same year. This landmark legislation theoretically opened the door of political power to blacks.
While I was a student at Howard Law School, I had the privilege of participating in our study abroad program in Capetown, South Africa. While studying at the University of the Western Cape (which has a similar history of social and political activism such as Howard University), I had the occasion to meet some of the most fascinating people that I have ever encountered. What made the folks so amazing was their resilience and determination in overcoming the oppression of government sanctioned apartheid. There was a kindred spirit and connection between our struggles here in the US, especially the civil rights movement, and their quest to attain full citizenship.
One day I was touring Robben Island, where my personal hero Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in exile. One of the guides told me that he was imprisoned with Mr. Mandela and that he only had one opportunity to vote in his lifetime because of apartheid. He told me that when an election is held it invokes a tremendous sense of pride and that it is an all day event. He recalled standing in line all day to cast his vote for South Africa’s first democratically elected President “Madiba” as Nelson Mandela is affectionately referred to. Consider this fact: according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance in 1999 South Africa had a turnout of 89.3 percent and in 2004 a turnout of 98.4 percent.
I participated in the Special Election on April 1st where there was an abysmal turnout of about 7 percent. There are approximately 40,000 registered voters in the district and roughly 3,000 participated. I have heard every excuse imaginable to justify this pathetic turnout, “the weather was bad, folks just don’t participate in special elections, we just voted in the Presidential Primary and now you are asking us to vote again.” I must admit that I find all of these excuses lacking any merit considering the sacrifices that those who came before us made. I personally sent five mailers, flooded the district with signs, door knocked on over 6,000 doors, made phone calls, ran television commercials (I know that at least 2 of my opponents made similar efforts).What is most troubling is the fact that the county spent about $1 million to conduct this special election, which was triggered by the death of local civil right icon State Senator Gwendolyn Britt.
I must commend local organizations such as the Maryland Black Mayors, People for Change, The Young Democrats, Progressive Cheverly, and the Collington Seniors’ Center for sponsoring debates. Additionally, The Gazette, the Afro, the Prince George’s Sentinel, and the Washington Post all provided coverage to inform the voters. So, I find the arguments unpersuasive that the word didn’t get out and folks didn’t know about the special election.
I personally do not consider voting to be a right or a privilege but a Duty! Anyone who does not fulfill this obligation is disgracing the legacy of Dr. King. A non-vote ultimately is a vote. It signals a lack of interest in how your local tax dollars are being allocated. It signals a lack of interest in the education of our county’s children and the construction of new schools. It signals a lack of interest in developing innovative methods to combat violent crime. This is a sad commentary for the nation’s most educated and affluent African-American county.
Yes, I adamantly believe that Dr. King’s legacy has been disgraced and will continue to be disgraced as long as we don’t become active and engaged citizens. We must become active and engaged on all levels whether it is your local PTA, homeowners’ association, mentoring in the school system, writing to your local newspaper or elected official about what is going on in your community. Hopefully, we won’t lose talented leaders who are willing to serve the community because the community isn’t interested in the political process. Dr. King led a movement 50 years ago and I believe Prince George’s County desperately needs a movement. Hopefully all of Dr. King’s works won’t be in vain.
Dr. King often said, “The vote is not the ball game, but it gets you inside the ballpark.”