These stories are supposed to be heartwarming, and on some level they are. You know the stories. They pop up around Election Day amidst the angry political ads, overconfident political predictions, and rumors of voter fraud. They’re the stories of 100-year-olds who are voting for the very first time and suddenly everyone is amazed.
In 2008, it was Dilla Freeman Burt. This year, it’s 99-year-old Rosie Lewis and 108-year-old Joanna Jenkins. Whenever I hear these stories, my first thought is “Awesome!” and my second is: Where have you been for the last 82 years?
Here’s a short history lesson for those of you who think Black people were granted the right to vote in 2008. Right after the Emancipation, Blacks began voting. In 1870, the 15th Amendment protected the right of every male citizen to vote without regard to race, color, or previous condition of servitude. The 19th Amendment passed in 1920, gave women (without regard to race) the right to vote, as well. The Voting Rights Act passed 1965, banned the local laws and traditions (such as poll taxes and literacy tests) which had been used to prevent Blacks from voting. In 1971, the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18.
So, from 1971 until 2012 these women (and other men and women just like them who didn’t make headlines) couldn’t find a single occasion to vote? Not even for a local election? I simply cannot fathom that.
Granted, I didn’t grow up in the Jim Crow era and therefore cannot even begin to understand the irreversible damage that would do to a person’s mind. I don’t know what it’s like to be actively and legally discriminated against and prevented from even drinking out of a water fountain much less voting for a president of the United States. Still, I would think that after experiencing the implementation then eradication of Jim Crow, I would be first in line to cast my vote if someone even pretended to let me. I’d be at the polls not just in a presidential year, but every single year for every single election thereafter. Even if I didn’t participate in sit-ins and boycotts going on around me, I would hope to at least be appreciative of those people (who I likely would know personally) that fought so hard for Black people’s freedom. In that situation, I’d like to think that I’d show my appreciation by doing something as simple as showing up at the polls on a regular basis.
We tend to highlight those people who have shunned elections until President Obama came on the scene. We want to demonstrate how inspiring the President is by showcasing how he’s motivated old people to vote for the very first time. However, the people who are truly remarkable are those who grew up during the Jim Crow era yet have been exercising their right to vote since the moment they were allowed. In fact, President Obama’s election was made possible by the many people who have participated in the elections both by casting votes and by running for office. If we all waited until we were near corpse to suddenly care about the election, there would be no Obama to vote for.
I’m certainly not coming down on Dilla, Rosie and Joanna. I’m glad they’ve finally decided to participate. What’s alarming about these women who have stayed alive long past an expected expiration date and only just now deciding to vote is the fact that they represent plenty of other people who have not and will not ever vote. A full 35 percent of Black people didn’t vote in 2008 — and that was considered overwhelming turnout.
How many of our grandmas and grandpas, aunts and uncles, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters are sitting at home today — well over the voting age — unregistered and not participating? These are the ones who we can only hope will be making headlines decades from now for finally casting a vote. In that time, their great-grandkids will be gushing, “Oh my great-grandmother cast her first ballot!” and I will be old, but not too senile to think, “Where was your great-grandmother in 2012?”
Choosing not to vote is inexcusable. In fact, as Philadelphia Inquirer, Annette Hall-Jones pointed out: Choosing not to exercise the right [to vote] is not a choice at all. In a year already rife with voter suppression, not voting amounts to self-suppression, the worst kind of disenfranchisement.
While I’m happy to hear that these women are voting, I’m not feeling the warmth and pride that the stories are trying to promote. Instead, I’m just saying it’s about time.
What do you think?