Beat to Quarters*: An argument to register

Guest Post by Pat Hussain

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The 2012 elections will culminate with President Obama being reelected or replaced as President.  Some people have decided to vote in this election; others not to vote.  Whatever your decision I urge everyone who is eligible to register to vote by the October 9th deadline.

Every citizenship right we have has come after a protracted struggle: Pressure created by direct action and mass movement organizing provided the momentum for a successful vote in the halls of Congress, state legislatures, or polling places across the country. Not registering to vote feels like speaking passionately on the issues at hand; but on Election Day, placing our hands over our mouths.

After the Civil War the struggle for equality moved from the battlefield to the ballot box, as centuries old violence and intimidation tactics against Black people continued.  During Reconstruction, in 1866, the Radical Republicans took control of Congress.  Before the War ended, Rev. George F. Noyes had expressed his support of them, and restraint of former Confederates, during a sermon to the Union Army in 1862:

“When a man puts a knife at my throat, and I succeed in conquering and hand-cuffing him, shall I be so foolish as at once to restore him to his former position, knife and all? Let every man’s own common sense answer this question. The idea with some even at the North is that the South is to be acknowledged as an equal nation if triumphant, while, if she is subdued after the great and fearful struggle, she is at once to be invited into a front seat, and at once admitted to all her old privileges.”

In 1867, Congress replaced Southern civilian government with military districts, and enforced the enfranchisement of Freedmen.  Of the 22 Black members of Congress, elected during Reconstruction, 13 were Freedmen; all were Republican.  Of the 1st 20 elected as Congressmen, five were denied their seats.  Others had their terms interrupted or delayed.

At the 1888 Republican Convention, a new faction emerged within their party. Norris Wright Cuney named this group, the Lily-White Movement: An anti-civil rights response to African-American political and economic gains.  Their goal was to eliminate Black progress and get white voters back from the Democrats.  As it grew to an organized nationwide effort, most Blacks were prevented from seeking office.  Democrats and Republicans erected legislative barriers for Black voters: In the form of poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses.  George White was the last African-American in Congress for 28 years when he delivered his final speech in the House on January 29, 1901:

“This is perhaps the Negroes’ temporary farewell to the American Congress, but let me say, Phoenix-like he will rise up some day and come again. These parting words are in behalf of an outraged, heart-broken, bruised and bleeding, but God-fearing people; faithful, industrious, loyal, rising people – full of potential force.”

That drought was ended with the election of Oscar De Priest: the first African-American of the modern era and the last Black Republican representative for 56 years.

The 20th Century civil rights movement built on work begun during Reconstruction. Direct action changed and engaged our national conscience as we the people gathered and shone a light on unjust laws, rogue municipalities, and flaws in our Union. Our votes sent those we elected to represent us into the rooms where laws are made and changed.

African-American voting strength blossomed across the South from 1960-1966: in Mississippi – from 22,000 registered Blacks to 175,000, in South Carolina – from 58,000 to 191,000; and in Alabama – from 66,000 to 250,000. The number of Blacks in Congress doubled from five to ten as the 1960s drew to a close. The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) emerged from that fertile ground in 1971, followed by the 1976 arrival of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. For the first time in this century, a presidential veto on foreign policy was overridden. When the CBC joined others in opposition to President Reagan, they helped bring about the extinction of South African Apartheid.

History reveals that laws enacted to create justice do not make justice happen. And that political party support, at best, is transient. Further struggle is required to make existing laws function – for example: penalties, criminal charges, and sanctions for noncompliance or violations. The thunder of feet marching and ballots dropping on Election Day; oars pulling together as our boat presses forward. Knowing that our need for justice is immediate, it is frustrating that our progress tends to be incremental. That is why I urge you to register to vote. We need you.

The nautical term is, “All hands on deck.” Something that you say when everyone’s help is needed, especially to do a lot of work in a short amount of time. If you have ever changed your mind, reconsidered a decision, or just like to keep your options open; consider registering. If you do register, you can still decide not to vote.  The decision of whether to vote or not just moves to 7:00 pm, November 6th when the polls close. But if you don’t register, that option, that oar, is left behind.

Rough waters and big waves have kept us from the shores of full equality and have tried to swamp our boat, relentlessly. It has required every tactic at our disposal, some created on the journey, to keep us afloat. Pack both oars: Direct action and the vote. Those who never had the right and those who lost it have needed us to pull that oar for them.

Election Day will mark our progress, lull, or decline; but not the end of our journey. Tsunamis of regressive, racist, mean-spirited political candidates and policies have raised the call for, “all hands on deck.” We need all who are able to give a two-fisted pull toward equality and our own visions of a just world. In the tradition of our struggle, join us.

*Prepare for battle (beat = beat the drum to signal the need for battle preparation).

Pat Hussain is a part of the We All Count campaign and participated in the Southern Movement Assembly two weeks ago in Lowndes County, Alabama. The Assembly brought together 25 delegations from over 40 organizations around the South. Pat is a beloved movement elder and one of six founders of SONG, Southerners On New Ground, an LGBTQ organization working for racial and economic justice. In 1996, Pat co-founded Olympics Out of Cobb County to bring attention to a resolution the city passed in 1993 condemning LGBTQ people. The successful organizing forced the Olympic Committee to remove all officially sanctioned events from the county.

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4 thoughts on “Beat to Quarters*: An argument to register

  1. My Afros English teacher made a comment (long ago) that my family members had said for years: “you need to vote because folks DIED for your right to do so.” Every election: city, state or national – that statement always rings in my head. I hate the choices I’m given and trust none of the candidates, but I vote each and every time so as not to anger my ancestors. It’s the least I can do for what they gave.

  2. thanks for writing this post – I definitely understand why people feel less inclined to vote, especially in a presidential election that also includes an antiquated potential “go around” to the popular vote in the form of the electoral college. Pres elections also tend to suck all the air out of the room, and national politics especially seem to elevate the less inspiring, superficial, run to the middle debates about how the country is run, leaving lots of people feeling like there is no point to voting between the two main parties. But your suggestion to register anyway, just in case something does inspire you between the end of registration and election day, is a good one. And that inspiration may come in the form of a local or state candidate, even if the national politics don’t move you very much. In NC, and I am sure in other states, you can also register the day you vote during early voting.

    Thanks also for posting this essay here, and sharing with us information about this campaign (We All Count). I, too, am not ready (yet) to cede the South to the regressive politics that have basis in the South’s segregated past and the exploitation of people’s fear and anxiety to essentially gain and keep power for a select monied few. I’m not sure the election will turn out well for progressives in NC, regardless of how the national elections play out. It’s nice to know there is a bigger group out there organizing around some of the unique strategies that may need to be used to get things moving forward in this part of the country.

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