Black leaders take vote to youths
As the nation honors King, area officials look at ways to motivate black voters
Published: Monday, January 19, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 19, 2004 at 2:24 a.m.
Among the basic objectives of the civil rights movement, one that could assist in achieving other goals was securing the vote for all eligible black people.
Yet the right to vote regardless of race or color - although not gender, early on - had been on the books since 1870. That's when the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified.
But as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and those locked arm-in-arm with him on the rutted roads to equality knew so well, ballot-box injustice continued to thrive nearly a century later.
So they marched, and they sued, and they won, in the courts and Congress, federal guarantees of the right to vote.
Today, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and in an important election year nearly four decades after the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the ballot box still challenges the black community.
"I feel in the '60s people were excited about (voting rights) because it was during the King era and there was a struggle to get to that point," said Evelyn Foxx, cq vice president of the Alachua County Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
"Here we are almost 40 years later, with all the opportunity in the world to vote, and there is so much apathy in the black community," she said. "I think young people are our biggest challenge."
In Alachua County, blacks represent about 25 percent of the
population but only 15 percent of the voter registration rolls, according to Supervisor of Elections Beverly Hill.
Statewide, black turnout during the November 2002 election was about 43 percent compared with 27 percent in 1998. Turnout among whites and other racial groups was 55 percent, up from 36.5 percent in 1998, according to the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation.
Foxx and other local black leaders said engaging young people in the electoral process will take conventional efforts, such as education. But, they said, it also will take a rethinking of the fundamental approach to motivating people to vote.
"A new generation of folks is now eligible to vote, but they don't out of apathy," said Larry McDaniel, president of Focus on Leadership and a member of the black leadership organization's Black Political Consortium. "We have not reached these young folks and we have not planned an outreach that is attractive to them."
He said a shift is taking place in the black community that differs from the electoral situation a couple of generations ago. Black people today, particularly the young, he said, do not respond to the "vote for John because he's a good guy, or vote against John because he's a bad guy" approach.
"That doesn't sell to the young crowd," McDaniel said. "They want to know who John is and how he'll be responsible to them if they vote for him. We need to give them some reason and rationale for voting."
Taking something away from the self-disenfranchised young may be what it takes to get them involved, said Alachua County Commissioner Rodney Long, founder of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commission of Florida.
"If we take away something they feel strongly about - maybe their MP3 or their video games - maybe that will get their attention and get them involved in the process," he said. "They take things for granted and think that it can't be taken away from them. Once they find out it can, then we need to show them they need to vote the people out who made the changes."
The 2000 presidential election didn't ease the job of selling voting to young people, said Diyonnecq McGraw, a co-founder of the Black Political Consortium.
"Unfortunately after the 2000 election, people felt robbed," said McGraw, a Realtor and a licensed support coordinator with the Florida Department of Children & Families. "But we need to educate them that their vote can make a difference."
She said that was demonstrated in recent local elections, including the 1-cent sales tax to fund the new criminal courthouse and the Alachua County Forever land-conservation initiative.
"We went out and showed that they were good for the community," McGraw said. "The African-American vote can turn a race for you."
Over the weekend, state Rep. Ed Jennings Jr., D-Gainesville, sponsored a barbecue and voter-registration drive at Northgate, a shopping center in northeast Gainesville. McGraw said it was targeted chiefly at young people.
"Sometimes they say their vote doesn't make any difference, that (elected officials) are going to do whatever they want when they get in anyway," she said. "I challenge that by saying in African-American history, people have died for the right to vote."
Education is a key, McGraw and others said. It can include a little history: sharing what the world was like when states, mostly in the South, found creative and often violent ways to sidestep the 15th Amendment and keep blacks from voting.
But education can be simpler lessons, too.
"I took one young man to the voting precinct to show him what a voting machine looked like," McGraw said. "We have to expose them to the process."
McDaniel said the approach to increasing black participation in the electoral process must include registering people to vote, but then enabling them to get to the polls to cast their votes.
"We have a tendency to get people registered, but we haven't done a great job of getting them to vote," he said.
However, McDaniel said, that two-pronged approach isn't enough today. Equally important, he said, is an emphasis on accountability of officials the black vote helped put in office.
"Many issues come up that elected officials take stands on before the election, but there's no accountability to the community at large after they get in," he said. "We're in the process in the Black Political Consortium of putting together an accountability mechanism to deal with that in Alachua County. We're going to look at issues that impact the black community and the political response to those issues, and holding people accountable."
He said older black people lived through the days of poll taxes, literacy tests, gerrymandering and other obstacles designed to deny them the vote.
"Many of them sacrificed for the vote, and to them it holds a very different meaning than it does to the younger generation," McDaniel said. "Older people know the true significance of voting. Younger people don't see what it can do for them.
"The only way we have of reaching them is to make them see there is a credible mechanism for participating," he said, "and that there is a reward for having participated in the process."
Bob Arndorfer can be reached at 374-5042 or arndorb@ gvillesun.com.
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