Community Voices

Why vote? Voting Rights Teach-In hopes to answer question

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in a ceremony in the President's Room near the Senate chambers in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 6, 1965. Surrounding the president from left directly above his right hand: Vice President Hubert Humphrey; House Speaker John McCormack; Rep. Emanuel Celler, D-N.Y.; first daughter Luci Johnson; and Sen. Everett Dirkson, R-Ill. Behind Humphrey is House Majority Leader Carl Albert of Oklahoma; and behind Celler is Sen. Carl Hayden, D-Ariz.
President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in a ceremony in the President's Room near the Senate chambers in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 6, 1965. Surrounding the president from left directly above his right hand: Vice President Hubert Humphrey; House Speaker John McCormack; Rep. Emanuel Celler, D-N.Y.; first daughter Luci Johnson; and Sen. Everett Dirkson, R-Ill. Behind Humphrey is House Majority Leader Carl Albert of Oklahoma; and behind Celler is Sen. Carl Hayden, D-Ariz. AP File

College students arriving on campuses throughout the USA, unpacking bags, and greeting friends may not be focused on the voting process and their right to vote. Some who have thought about it maybe uniformed or misinformed about current voting laws, while some are unaware of the hardships blacks faced historically when they tried to vote.

Decades before absentee ballots and early voting, black people brave enough to appear at polling places were given a literacy test on-site. A standard test question: “How many bubbles are in a bar of soap?” Impossible to answer and irrelevant to the process the test was one of several obstacles that denied black people their right. Today, in 2016, the right to vote continues to be a political issue.

In preparation for the upcoming presidential election, the Harvard Black Alumni Society of South Florida and Florida Memorial University are co-sponsoring a Voting Rights Teach-In on Sept. 10 at Florida Memorial University in Miami Gardens.

Presenters at the teach-in: Charles J. Ogletree Jr., the Jesse Climenko Professor of Law and founding executive director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice at Harvard Law School, Harvard University; and Tameka Bradley Hobbs, interim chairwoman of the social sciences department and assistant professor of history at Florida Memorial University, and the university’s historian.

“The presentations on the history of voter suppression nationally and in Florida is largely untold,” event spokeswoman Marilyn Holifield said. “Included in the presentation will be a review of the positions that are elected and the way in which those positions have the power to impact nearly every dimension of what it takes to have a healthy, productive and good life. The presentations will be riveting and inspiring. We hope that all who attend will be inspired to participate in the electoral process on election day and also participate in efforts to hold public officials accountable after they are elected.”

Participating in the discussion will be a representative from Miami-Dade Elections; a Florida Memorial student leader; and Umi Selah, formerly known as Phillip Agnew.

A Chicago native, Selah is a 2008 graduate of Florida A & M University’s School of Business and Industry and the organizer and mission director of the Dream Defenders, a group he co-founded in 2012 to bring the tragedies of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown to public attention.

According to its website, “Dream Defenders does not officially endorse a candidate. Rather, we share educational information and encourage our base to vote responsibility based on where each candidate stands on our issues.”

Selah has been recognized as a generational leader by the international and national media including Ebony Magazine, The Root, MSNBC, the Huffington Post, USA Today, the Guardian, and Democracy Now! In 2015 he was a presenter in the session, “Leveraging Grassroots Movements to Achieve Long-term Change,” sponsored by the Independent Sector’s Embark Conference held in Miami.

A legal theorist, Ogletree has an international reputation for taking a hard look at complex issues of law and working to secure the rights guaranteed by the US Constitution for everyone equally under the law.

Ogletree is the author, co-author, and co-editor of numerous books on race and justice. The following readings maybe of interest to student attendees: “From Lynch Mobs to the Killing State: Race and the Death Penalty in America” published by NYU Press 2009; and “Beyond the Rodney King Story: An Investigation of Police Conduct in Minority Communities” published by Northeastern University Press 1985.

Hobbs is recipient of the 2015 Florida Book Award for Nonfiction for her book, “Democracy Abroad, Lynching at Home: Racial Violence in Florida,” published by the University Press of Florida. In 2016 she received the Florida Historical Society’s Harry T. and Harriette Moore Award. This award is named to honor the Moores, who were murdered in 1951 because of their civil rights and voter registration efforts throughout Florida.

Hobbs’ research interests focus on Florida and the nation. As a public historian, in addition to instructing students on campus she applies history beyond the walls of the traditional classroom promoting understanding through the ideals of social justice and community engagement.

“The Teach-In format will be used because the lectures are more instructive than just pontificating,” Hobbs said. “With a younger audience in mind, the goal is to help them understand the history of voting rights and its importance for black African Americans. To help them connect to the longer history of electoral politics, and the danger of not taking the privilege seriously.”

“Why vote,” students may ask. Hobbs’ response:

“Students should know that voting rights and civil rights go hand in hand,” she says. “The tragic lynching era in American history is a vivid illustration of these facts. Violence and terrorism in the form of lynching were used as extralegal means of depriving African Americans in the South of their right to vote.

“Because they could not effectively exercise the franchise, blacks had no say in the people who served as sheriffs and police officers. Due to these circumstances, law enforcement officials represented the enforcement arm of Jim Crow policies. History teaches us that part of the answer to the recent crisis with hyper-policing and police brutality against people of color is to exercise our voting power more effectively.”

Dorothy Jenkins Fields, PhD, is a historian and founder of the Black Archives, History and Research Foundation of South Florida Inc. Send feedback to djf@bellsouth.net.

If you go

▪ What: Voting Rights Teach-In

▪ When: 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 10

▪ Where: Florida Memorial University, Lou Rawls Center for the Performing Arts, 15800 NW 42nd Ave., Miami Gardens

▪ More information: Call Kathy Chippey, 305-626-3626

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