<<Home Niagara Falls Reporter Archive>>


By Bill Bradberry

My earliest memories of politics and elections take me back to the 1950s. My father took me with him to the polls, where he cast his vote inside a strange curtain-wrapped contraption filled with levers and knobs and tiny printed names.

Mt. Views
Local History

I was too young then to know the significance of that simple deed. Now I know.

I remember it as though it were yesterday. There were crowds of people outside, engaged in spirited debates about the candidates and the issues. I recall the tobacco-puffing, woolen-laden men gathered in small groups, huddled against the November winds, passionately pounding their fists into the sky, expounding upon the pros and cons, the ups and downs, the good and bad sides of whatever issues of the day brought them out of their warm homes to cast their votes.

Like most of them, Dad worked in a factory, owned his house, paid his taxes and raised his family on the meager earnings of an hourly wage worker, a relatively new concept back then. For years he and his co-workers were paid by the piece under a system that forced them to produce a minimum number of gadgets per day to be paid whatever the company was offering. Having the opportunity to vote gave him the leverage he needed to change that.

He considered it his civic duty to participate, to express his opinion via the ballot box.

He knew that the unions had worked hard to change things for the better. He had seen the emergence of the 40-hour work week and something completely new called "overtime pay," as well as paid vacations and health insurance.

He knew who to vote for to protect his interests. He understood the relationship between politics and his condition, his future and his family's security.

Then as now, people had strong opinions. Their attitudes were affected by the politicians who appealed to their needs by promising to do things that needed to be done locally, like paving the streets, picking up the garbage, plowing the snow and keeping taxes down, all at the same time.

A social liberal who favored expanded housing, health, education and employment opportunities for his people, Dad was also an economic conservative, opposed to waste, big government and Communism.

On that chilly November day 40 years ago, my father and thousands of others knew that their votes counted. But that is not the case anymore, or so it seems from my perspective in Florida.

Just as there had been for generations in the United States, there was a deliberate concerted effort to contain the votes of black citizens in the last presidential election, not only in Florida, but, as the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights pointed out, suppression was widespread.

Believing that Jim Crow is dead as the result of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, we teach our children that every single citizen has a right to vote.

Sure, the bloody violence, literacy tests and poll taxes are gone, but a much more subtle, cynical and dangerous litany of tactics has taken its place.

In a special report, "The Long Shadow of Jim Crow: Voter Intimidation and Suppression in America Today," published by the People for the American Way Foundation and the NAACP, the authors trace the history of an expansive conspiracy of "race-based targeting" of African-Americans across the country, including the most recent controversy near Disney World in Orlando, where armed Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents are "investigating" elderly black voters, going to their homes and interrogating them about alleged absentee ballot irregularities.

What's different from the way it was in the 1950s, when my father disappeared into that curtain-shrouded election booth, and the way it is now?

Well, one thing stands out: Not everyone feels the same level of confidence in the electoral process voters had in the '50s.

Too few of us are taking full advantage of the opportunity to participate in the process. There is no excuse for any African-American not to be registered to vote.

Despite the negativity of those who are trying their best to stop it, some people are beginning to get the connection. Sean "P. Diddy" Combs' organization, Citizen Change, is accomplishing what years of preaching and public service announcements have failed to do: getting the attention of the young black voters.

His "Vote or Die" message is aimed squarely at the MTV and BET market. After all, it was the kids who led the Civil Rights struggle in the '50s.

But why is there so much apathy now?

According to Census data, only 34 percent of all African-Americans in the 18-24 age range, and 37 percent of all whites in that category, bothered to vote in the 2000 Presidential Election. No less than 50 percent of black high school students drop out, while 70 percent have children and at least one-third are in jail, on probation, or otherwise tied up in the criminal justice system.

The small crowds of huddled masses that used to line the sidewalks outside the polling places have been replaced by television attack advertisements. The candidates seem unwilling, if not unable, to address the real issues.

If we don't teach our children what the process is really about, we will lose the ground we have gained over the years.

The struggles that got us to this point should not be forgotten.

We have come too far to let the dreams of our fathers become nightmares for our children.

The former head of the Niagara Falls Equal Opportunity Coalition, Bill Bradberry is President of the Palm Beach Public Law Institute and President of the Niagara Movement Foundation. You may e-mail him at ghana1@bellsouth.net.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Oct. 19 2004