Voices: The power to vote is awesome. Use it.
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Frustrated. Mad. Those were just two of the ways I felt as I toured the recently opened SmithsonianNational Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
It was a homecoming of sorts for me. I live in California, but I was born and raised 10 miles from the museum, in Alexandria, Va., in a black neighborhood affectionately referred to as Mudtown.
As I walked the halls of the beautifully curated museum, the exhibits brought back vivid — and painful — memories of my childhood in the early l960s. Memories that made me angry about how much we sometimes take our hard-won rights for granted.
For decades, Virginia chose a path of massive resistance to civil rights, putting up barrier after barrier to disenfranchise its black residents. One of the state’s most effective tools was the poll tax, a shameful policy whose sole purpose was to keep people — African Americans specifically — from having a vote or a voice.
I remember eavesdropping on election-time conversations at church or around the dinner table as my parents and their friends and neighbors talked about the tax. Many said they couldn’t afford it and wouldn’t vote. Others talked about refusing to pay in a show of protest. A few advocated compliance, citing the importance of voting at any cost. But even those with money in hand were often denied the right to cast a ballot as new requirements were dreamt up to shut them out.
In general, Virginia was a tough place for black people to live back then. Not only was there a state-sanctioned campaign to keep blacks from voting, segregation was firmly entrenched. I was born in a segregated hospital. My mom was so outraged by the shoddy treatment she received that when it came time to deliver my younger siblings, she made the trek across the river to D.C., to Howard University’s Freedmen’s Hospital, founded in 1862 to aid in the medical treatment of former slaves.
The problem in the 1960s was that African Americans in Virginia didn’t have the power or influence to push anything anywhere. When the 24th Amendment was ratified in 1964 to prohibit states from imposing poll taxes, Virginia set out to find a way around the Constitution. For years, it made black voters file special paperwork and go through all kinds of other hoops to prove their residence. Virginia didn’t even ratify the 24th Amendment until 1977.
Today, Virginia is very different from the state I grew up in. The poll tax is long gone. Alexandria is a tourist destination and regularly ranks as one of the wealthiest cities in the country. But, as in other states across the country where people feel threatened by changing demographics, there is still plenty of stubbornness in Virginia on issues like voter identification.
That’s why I will never take for granted the privilege and the power of the vote. And it’s why I left the museum feeling frustrated and angry at any American, but especially folks of color, who are contemplating sitting out this upcoming election.
Consider what’s at stake when we go to the polls in November. The leaders we elect will be deciding what happens to your family’s health care. They will be making decisions that will affect your wages and working conditions. The amount of affordable housing in your community. The quality of the air you breathe and the water you drink. The ability of your local schools to give every child the education she or he deserves.
And let’s be real — the issues of race, community safety and gun violence in our country have got to be addressed. It’s time, once and for all, for leaders at all levels to find solutions to ensure that black lives matter; that those in law enforcement who protect and serve us have the support and training they need to do their jobs effectively and stay safe; and that our criminal justice system treats everyone fairly and compassionately.
People, sitting this election out is not an option. Our history — my history — shows that the vote is a powerful thing. And it’s the only thing standing between us and the steamroller of oppression. If you’re still not convinced, take a tour of the museum. See for yourself the sacrifices that were made so that all Americans would have the right to make their voices heard.
The bottom line: If you haven’t registered yet, do it. Get your friends and family to do the same. Time is running out. And then mark your calendar for Tuesday, Nov. 8. The polls are open all day long — and voting won’t cost you a thing.
Belk, president and CEO of The California Wellness Foundation, was born and raised in Alexandria, Va., and in 2013 was inducted into the Alexandria African American Hall of Fame. Follow her on Twitter @CEO_CalWellness.