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Remember Freedom Summer: Voting Rights 2016

MLK is bae

MLK is bae

Freedom Summer, a push from civil rights organizations to increase voter registration in Mississippi, confronted incredible hatred and violence from the KKK and police. The movement happened over 50 years ago, but the School of Social Work hosted an event last night in Low Rotunda to make sure we never forget the struggle for voting rights, and the importance that fight holds today, in perhaps the most volatile election in American history. Senior Staffer Sarah Dahl was there to get the full scoop.

I had a loose knowledge of Freedom Summer going into this event, and an even more loosely evidenced, though rock-solid, belief in the necessity to vote. I came away, as one of the speakers, Jerry Vattamala, put it,”a little bit disturbed, a little bit upset, but determined to do something,” about voting rights.

The night featured diverse characters–activists, members of academia, administrators, lawyers, and even a reverend. The audience make-up was diverse as well–some students, a lot of older people, a dad with his son. The majority were people of color. A sign language interpreter made the evening accessible to the deaf.

The first few presenters spoke somewhat monotonously and tediously–delivering true words, to be sure, but nothing I hadn’t heard before: exercise your right to vote, Trump is a demagogue, institutional white supremacy still exists. I grew distracted by the way voices reverberate around Low Rotunda (it’s really a terrible place to host events).

Then Reverend Dr. Calvin O. Butts III got to the podium, and his booming pastor’s cadence and accessible logic refreshed and inspired me. He spoke about the transformative power MLK’s words had on him as a youth during the Civil Rights movement, but also the trouble of “how to transform the power of love into something concrete.”

The nonviolence practiced during the Civil Rights movement has always left me in awe. Today, however, the question of turning love into something concrete seems more complex and less tangible–particularly when the legislation civil rights activists won is still broken daily.

Activist Karen K. Narasaki spoke about the terrible infringements on voting rights around the country. Voter ID laws in North Carolina, North Dakota, and Texas make it difficult if not impossible for marginalized groups like people of color and Native Americans to register. The work of the next two speakers, voting rights proponent Chris Melody Fields and lawyer/voting rights leader Vattamala, echoed these injustices. Fields spoke about a man recently released from prison in Florida for a low-level infringement who, because of his record, will not be able to vote in that state for the next 15 years. Vattamala discussed the truly f*ed up policies of poll workers across the country, who unlawfully demand unneeded identification, mess up the spellings of foreign names, segregate polls by race, fail to translate ballots correctly for those who require it, and otherwise prevent people of color from voting. This is happening today, across the country, and it excludes tens if not hundreds of thousands of citizens from elections. Vattamala and other lawyers and activists work to sue Boards of Elections in order to comply with the Voting Rights Act.

It’s beyond upsetting that millions of dollars of non-governmental litigation is required to enforce a bill passed half a century ago.

The most interesting part of the evening were audience comments at the end. One man discussed working to register Harlem residents to vote. Another spoke about leaving his sons to campaign for Obama in 2008–a cause he cared deeply enough about to travel to a different state for an extended period of time. A black professor voiced frustration at the lack of women of color featured in the presentation.

These are voices we don’t often hear from directly. Campus politics are about Bernie Sanders rallies that feature Vampire Weekend, heated discussions borrowing rhetoric and concepts from our Poli Sci and Core classes, Facebook posts smearing Hillary, memes about Trump. None of us realize how lucky we are to be able to vote, or to have the education to participate in elevated political discussion. While we’re schooled in politics and inundated with encouragement to watch debates, read the newspaper, and cast our ballots, we don’t think about, or understand the different lives of voters in myriad other states–or a few blocks over.

A social work student voiced concern about millennials wishing to opt-out of this election for political reasons. Bernie’s gone, so what’s the point? Or, they’re both monsters, and I won’t settle for the lesser evil.  This logic is so far beside the point. The American political system is screwy and has been for a long time. A lot of people in this country still can’t vote. So let’s use ours.

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