By H. Victoria Hargro Atkerson
On special occasions, we celebrate people and events that are most sacred to us: birthdays, anniversaries, and special holidays that have profound meaning. This August the sixth is the anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, a celebration that you, your family, and your friends should acknowledge and celebrate because of its sacred nature. Being a history buff, I always refer to the origin of issues relating to the progression of African Americans’ struggle for equality and justice in this country. This time is no different. During the reconstruction era, blacks strived for equal opportunities under the law and found themselves locked out of the political system. Those who could vote found out that their appearance at the polls incited aggression and violence from whites intent on maintaining the white superiority that plagued and enslaved blacks for generations. Blacks seeking justice were met with more violence and increased incidents of beatings, lynchings, and rapes as they grew more determined to be complete citizens of this country. Between 1889 and 1932, over 3,745 people were lynched for daring to demand their rights under the law. Lynching was so common that the NAACP headquarters hung a sign outside their window every time a person was lynched to draw attention to the increasing problem. These lynchings were tolerated, and no one was convicted for these barbaric practices.
In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson went on television and announced that he would do something about it after the tragedy of Selma’s Bloody Sunday, which was televised for all to see. I remember watching with horror as mounted policeman led their horses into the crowd, stomping on the bodies of fallen demonstrators. Other whites used clubs to beat demonstrators on the head, including John Lewis, the head of SCLC at the time. America responded, echoing the same horror I felt, demanding that something be done. In his heavy southern accent, Johnson shocked everyone as he ended his speech with the slogan, “We shall overcome.” On August the 6th, the Voting Rights Bill was ratified and became law, putting an end to the violence against blacks who desired a voice in their government.
Growing up in Atlanta, Ga., gave me a front row seat to many of the hideous scenes that plagued the black community as they struggled for equal participation. My fondest memory as a child was going door to door with my mother. She gave my younger sister and I a hand full of registration forms with instructions to have people fill them out. My mother took one side of the street and my sister and I took the other. We were told to get the forms filled out, and if people could not write, we were to show them how. I was only twelve and my sister was ten. We spent many evenings following my mother around the community, getting people to register to vote. At the time, neither my sister nor I knew the significance of what we were doing. We were just doing what our mother told us to do. We laughed at our innocence back then. We fully realized that we were victims of “Jessification”. We were completely and utterly, “Jessified”…Our mother’s name was Jessie.
Today, I look to my family and friends as I think of how precious the right to vote was to my mother. I wonder how to honor her and all those wonderful, brave people who stood up and fought for our right to vote. Many of them lost their lives so that we, today, can exercise our right to vote. I think of the problems we have now with increasing incidents of brutality and shootings of blacks, and it breaks my heart that white supremacy is still thriving and impacting our lives. We are reminded that a hateful element in this country still exists and is trying desperately to return us to the 19th century, when people of color had no voice and no chance of receiving justice in the courtrooms of America.
What would my mother think of the state of blacks in 2016? I can only imagine. I am certain she would instruct us to walk softly around white people to avoid being victimized, as I heard her instruct my brothers who had to venture out at night as they left jobs to get home using public transportation. I also know that she would tell us to keep on doing what we must do to make changes in this country. She would tell us to do the work that must be done, while handing me a load of voter registration forms. As we walked softly through the neighborhood, she would say, “If they don’t understand, explain it. If they can’t write their names, teach them. Don’t come back until the job is done.”
On the anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 this coming August 6th, I encourage you to go to the post office and get as many voter registration forms as you can. Then go out into your community and register as many people as you can, because this November’s election is critical to our country’s future, most especially, to our children’s future. Voting is your right as a citizen, but it is everyone’s duty and responsibility to keep America great and to see to it that equality, freedom, and justice are the centerpieces of our lives. If people don’t understand the importance of the upcoming presidential election, explain it to them. If they can’t write, sit down and teach them how to write their names. And don’t come home until the job is done.
H. Victoria Hargro Atkerson is the author of “Buttermilk Bottom” and was an exhibitor at this year’s Harlem Book Fair.