With the United States’ Presidential election now 22 days away, we all hear the common refrain reserved especially for times like this: “Our people fought and died for the right to vote, and we do our ancestors a disservice if we don’t.” If one of us brave souls dares to express skepticism about going to the ballot box we hear the equally common “Well if you don’t vote, you don’t have the right to complain.” Because I believe such statements are misleading, inaccurate, and potentially counterproductive for Blacks and other oppressed people, I’m devoting some time here to address the issue.
My premise is that voting is one of many important citizenship rights we have, and arguably not the one that Black people spent most of their energy fighting for or utilizing. Nor has voting been the most effective and productive tool in our historical arsenal. A proper reading of history will demonstrate that the primary things we “fought and died for” included being recognized as United States citizens; having our citizenship rights and privileges enforced and protected; having the artificial barrier of race removed in any evaluation of our ability; being free to fairly compete for employment, education, business, and other opportunities for “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”; being protected from mob attack, lynching, or various forms of white intimidation and physical brutality.
While many of us today might give particular prestige and privilege to using our right to vote, history demonstrates that Black people have traditionally used many of our other fundamental rights (assembly, free speech, free press, protest) to advance our issues and interests. In fact, we have used this multitude of rights even more than the right to vote in addressing our grievances, a fact we often dismiss in our effort to drum up support for presidential elections.
One natural right Black people have often utilized is that of resistance to an unfair and brutal social order. Though controversial with his theory of “paternalistic” slave owners, Eugene Genovese in Roll Jordan Roll documented several accounts of enslaved Africans that broke tools, participated in work strikes, and deliberately slowed down their production, and escaped from captivity. Herbert Aptheker in his important book American Negro Slave Revolts used “government archives, personal letters (sometimes published in distant newspapers), journals, diaries, and court records” to chronicle a 200-year history of Black-led revolts, uprisings, and rebellions on southern slave plantations. In a display of self-reliance, Black people also created their own institutions to address their needs in a nation that neglected them. According to education scholars Hillary J. Moss and James Anderson, Black people as early as the mid-1800s created their own schools. This occurred during enslavement, during and after the Reconstruction, and often several decades before our right to vote was recognized. During the 19th century Black people were formidable opponents of slavery and some emerged to play important roles in the abolitionist movement to end the institution. We can use the Black Abolitionist Archive to search over 800 speeches and 1,000 newspaper editorials by abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Henry Highland Garnett, Maria Stewart, Ellen Watkins and many others. Concurrent with abolitionism was the National Negro Convention Movement. Utilizing their right to peaceably assemble, free Blacks held conferences throughout the country where they discussed and debated the problems, needs, and interests of free Blacks and explored methods of improving their condition which included emigration to other countries. Utilizing their freedom of the press, Black intellectuals launched Black-owned newspapers like Freedom’s Journal, The Colored American, and The North Star. These mediums became important ways to disseminate Black news and challenge racist American policies and practices, and energize Black protest.
Fast-forwarding to the 20th Century, during the post WWI period, Marcus Garvey and his Universal Negro Improvement Association created Black businesses, and the Negro World Newspaper, while calling for Black people to build everything they needed for their own survival and liberation and to free Africa from white colonial control. Black socialist Cyril Briggs created his organization the African Blood Brotherhood and The Crusader magazine which called for liberating Africa, increased Black unionizing, and anti-imperialism. Beginning in the 1930s, the Nation of Islam created their own system of schools, vast network of businesses, farms and factories, and through brother Malcolm, Muhammad Speaks newspaper. Dr. W.E.B. DuBois launched and edited The Crisis Magazine for several years, which became an equally important medium of political critique and news for Blacks throughout the nation. Some 40 years later, we witness the Civil Rights Movement’s brilliant and courageous use of non-violent protest and grassroots organizing to dismantle formal segregation in schools, businesses, public facilities, etc.
Influenced by the nationalist teachings of Malcolm X and the unrealized promises of the
Civil Rights Movement, Black students, intellectuals and activists launched the Black Arts and Black Power Movements, calling for a Black aesthetic, self-reliance, self-determination, and self-defense. Poets like Haki Madhubuti, Sonia Sanchez, Gil Scot Heron, The Last Poets, Nikki Giovanni and Amiri Baraka utilized their freedom of speech and press to
speak and write moving critiques of white supremacy and calls for Black solidarity. Organizations like the Black Panther Party, US, Republic of New Afrika, and Revolutionary Action Movement, drew from socialist, nationalist, and Pan African ideas to create Black schools, medical clinics, community patrols, and even to argue for a separate territory for Black people to occupy in America.
This very abbreviated survey of our history describes our multi-layered use of protest, rebellion, political writing and speaking, grassroots organizing, and Black-owned institutions/businesses as avenues to empower ourselves. These methods in fact were the dominant and primary methods we used to advocate for ourselves during our long sojourn in America.
This is not to say that we did not fight for the right to vote. But if we are going to reference our struggle for this right, we should be able to explain when and how we fought for the franchise. Our right to vote was recognized with the ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870, but was largely neutralized by white vigilante violence, gerrymandering and the unfair use of grandfather clauses and poll taxes. Consequently Black people did organize to fight for the right to vote which culminated in The Selma marches of 1965 the 1965 Voting Rights Act signed by President Lyndon Johnson and the short-lived formation of the The Lowndes County Freedom Organization in Alabama which served as a Black political party in 1966. So in truth, some of our people did fight and die to secure voting rights.
This however does not mean that presidential politics has been the salvation of Black people. Our history illustrates in dramatic fashion that Presidents have been reluctant allies to Black progress, if allies at all. In those cases when (white) Presidents did involve themselves in Black affairs, they did so as a result of our organizing, critiquing policies, protesting and creating alternative structures (and let us not forget scaring them with violence and disorder). Franklin Roosevelt desegregated war industries in 1941 only after A. Phillip Randolph called for a massive Black march on Washington; 30 years of successful litigation by the NAACP forced the Supreme Court’s hand, leading to the Brown v. Board desegregation decision of 1954; Black protest in Birmingham, Alabama (1963) exposed southern white brutality around the world, disgracing America’s image as a democratic and inclusive nation. This pushed John F. Kennedy off the fence forcing him to deliver the famous address insisting that “A great change is at hand, and our task, our obligation, is to make that revolution, that change, peaceful and constructive for all.” This led to Kennedy’s proposal for a Civil Rights Bill; scores of Black rebellions in American cities led Lyndon Johnson to sign the 1964 Civil Rights Act desegregating public accommodations, and leading him to form the Kerner Commission in an effort to discover why these rebellions occurred, and how to stop them. The recommendations of this committee led to several job training programs and widescale Black enrollment in white universities. Ultra-conservative Ronald Reagan signed the bill calling for a National Martin Luther King holiday in 1983 after a movement for this holiday led by Stevie Wonder and Coretta Scott King produced 6 million petition signatures. Our progress has always come from our sustained organizing, protest, and self-reliance.
In conclusion, I am not advocating that we abstain from voting in the upcoming elections. We have the right to utilize or not utilize the right to vote as we see fit. I am suggesting that presidential elections are not the only game in town, are not the most effective means for implementing change, and that we must pursue alternative means to advocate for our empowerment. Given the increasing role of corporate campaign contributions in determining electoral victory, and in politicians’ being beholden to corporate interests, my point is even more valid. Instead of vesting so much of our energy on selecting two federal public officials, we should seek to hold thousands of public offices in our local and state governments! These public offices affect our lives in very practical ways (schools, zoning, social services, policing, business contracts, etc.) Yet even this strategy will prove short-sighted and ineffective if we fail to mount sustained grassroots pressure, build economic power, and create institutions that we control.
Unless the present American political party systems undergoes radical structural change, I will continue to view voting in national elections as more of a symbolic act than a substantial one. I will continue to see it as a fraudulent exercise designed to demonstrate to American citizens that they have input in their government. The growth of corporate influence, military influence and press influence make such elections a joke and a farce. Sure, many Democrats and Republicans disagree on specific issues like abortion, taxes, gun control and the role of government in the lives of citizens. However, on a whole range of other issues, their areas of disagreement are fuzzy. And this is generally true regardless of a particular candidate’s race, gender or class.
This government is Lucy holding the football and we are Charlie Brown. We know that Lucy always pulls the ball away when we attempt to kick, but we naively continue to do so. Politics is not moved by appeals to morality but by economic and political power, lobbying and leverage. We must direct our attention to amassing this power, run in local elections, build powerful businesses and institutions, and continue our tradition of protest and resistance.
Agyei Tyehimba is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. Agyei has appeared on C-Span, NY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, “The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” Mr. Tyehimba is a professional consultant and public speaker providing political advice and direction for Black college student organizations, community activist groups, and nonprofit organizations. If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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