Reflecting on MLK’s “Give Us the Ballot” speech in the current state of our democracy.
For MLK Day this year, WHYY and Newcore Philly put together an exciting panel discussion on Voter Rights, featuring four of Philadelphia’s most vocal firebrands for social justice – including our own Purple Queen Blackwell, who frankly was on fire about this issue. So much is at stake, as new election laws make voting harder (and allow state legislatures to override results).
Of course all participants had unique perspectives to share, but when Purple vibed with Reverend Gregory Holston (a force of nature in his own right), there was magic! Together, as the hour-long conversation unfolded, they laid out a vital plan to empower and electrify The People.
We’ve distilled their comments down to create a new spin on this sadly very old problem facing our country today.
Three Questions, Two Voices, One Goal
#1: Describe the state of the union in one word, then elaborate.
We’re at a moment in time that’s very similar to other points in our history, when tensions arise between democracy and white supremacy. And tensions have been growing since a coalition of black and brown people and white progressives dared to elect an African American man president of the United States. That started the Tea Party, which has radicalized the Republican Party that’s been pushing a non-democratic agenda to block changes that are bound to happen simply because our demographics will finally constitute a multi-racial, multi-ethnic nation being led by people of all colors.
I’m gonna keep it real with everyone on this panel and around the world: I’m exhausted. Do you understand that we’ve been fighting for the same exact rights since before 1957! And this great speech about giving us the ballot is still relevant today! In 2022. It’s supposed to be the new millennium, but we are still fighting for voter rights. We are still fighting for you to stop taking my right to vote by trying to chop them down and disenfranchise my people.
I’m exhausted that this is a 400 year fight, and still today, and this technical world that we live in, where technology is everything, we’re moving to the future. We can’t even move the future from voting?! You’re still trying to disenfranchise my people?! I’m exhausted.
#2: Why is this fight worthwhile?
Voting isn’t about deciding who’s president every 4 years. Real voting happens every six months! When voting is connected with organizing, and organizing is connected with a real agenda of what we want — those three things, over a period of time creates change.
I’ve seen it in this city over the last seven to 10 years. People organized around a clear agenda, to elect people to specifically move that agenda forward. That’s why we’re pulling back from mass incarceration. That’s why you see unions in hotels and service industries. Not long ago wages were as low as $5 and hour, now the rate’s up to $20 – $25 – even $30 an hour. So when you have an agenda and you organize voters to support the right leaders, you can create movements that benefit real people’s lives.
Knowledge is power. And we can never forget that: knowledge is power. So when Civics was taken out of our educational system, it depleted our collective understanding of how we vote and why. When our people lost that knowledge, we disenfranchised ourselves from the power of understanding the very importance of voting.
Because this information is no longer a part of our educational system, we must become the teachers, and bring this knowledge to the streets, to the corners. Right? So that’s why I’m out there with my bullhorn saying, “Hey, you got to vote every six months! Here’s how you register to vote!” Because we’re not getting that in school. We’re not getting that at work. Not gonna get it in the hustle or from sports. You got to get it from the people who love you, right?
One of the best things America did was pass the 26th amendment to bring the voting age down from 21 to 18. Because we know that our young people have the capacity to not just understand but overstand their power and their voice. When they have the knowledge. That’s why Blackwell Cultural Alliance created the Love, Vibe, Vote campaign.
Love right? Because that’s the mission from the beginning to the end. It’s about love. Because if you love yourself, if you love your brown skin, and if you learn to love your brother across the street, guess what? You will never kill him. Because you love him! And you were taught that love. We have to re-engage our people with civic interest, and with knowledge – through love.
When we reach out, we love on them! We say, “Come on, we love you, and love can empower you and lift you up.” It’s the truth. Love can take you to a higher level, where you’re able to receive the knowledge and the information you need to disrupt the system, to change the narrative, to work against poverty and injustice in our communities. Knowledge comes from love, and strengthens our fight on the ground: Love, Vibe, Vote.
#3: What is our Selma moment in 2022?
What was powerful about Selma was that it was broadcast on television, which was a new medium at the time. The news stations literally interrupted broadcasts all over the nation with updates on what was happening at Selma when John Lewis and 600 peaceful marchers were attacked by police crossing Pettus bridge. Instantly, 70 million people witness the brutality. And that outrage swept across the country, sparking a turning point in the Civil Rights movement.
So let me say this: Selma changed Lyndon Johnson’s mind, but Lyndon still had to go back and twist some arms in that Senate and in that House to get that voting rights bill passed. And Lynden knew how to twist some arms.
Listen, the only way the Voting Rights bill got passed in 1965 is because we dared to walk across the bridge, and face those dangers. Now all of us who know the importance of this issue – we need to stand up on this right now. Right now. Right now. And demand that the leaders we elected, do the will of the people who elected them.
This president would not be in office without black and brown people getting out the vote. He needs to protect our fair elections. To push with all of his presidential power and might, with all the weight of the executive branch of our federal government.
Hold back Federal Reserve resources for starters! States with senators and governors who refuse to support voting rights, and whose legislature is passing laws restricting voting and allowing state government to overturn fair elections. That needs to stop. Now. #SanctiontheSenate!
Hold back their money, if they won’t respect our democracy. This president needs to step up and use every influence he has to get those senators in line to provide for our basic rights as citizens. Nothing is more crucial.
When MLK was asked in 1964 whether it was more important to push for Voting Rights or to get President Johnson to pass the War on Poverty legislation, he was very clear. He said, If we don’t get the vote, we can’t even really address poverty.
Voting Rights are so important, we must use every means necessary to pressure our government to do the right thing. We need to employ all of the nonviolent tactics that King taught us. To not only call our representatives and senators but to dare to challenge them publicly, and explore all possible avenues of peaceful resistance, to take action: financial, legal, social, whatever it takes.
I think that what’s important here to remember is Dr. King was just one of many superheroes in the story of Civil Rights. So many superheroes, willing to stand up and speak the truth and do the work and never back down. And that’s we need to tap into: all the superheroes who are on the ground right now. All our platforms, all our audiences, all our ideas.
Reverend Halston, I have to say this, I am behind you on sanctions for the Senate, that’s brilliant. We need to go to the streets with our message, but first figure out what our young people care about, right? And help them understand how politics affects that and their households, and how that their vote has real power and value.
And with every voting restriction passed, in this state or that, know that it’s only the beginning. We’re empowering these leaders to take more of our rights away. We’ve been here before, and we need to start preparing our young people for what is coming down the line. Let them know they’re a part of the solution, they have the answers and energy this movement needs, if we can really reach them and flashmob for solutions! We can take their lead and all work together.
Information is key. Our voting rights are being snatched away from us again! Again?! This is a major, major, major problem, that needs to be blown up. It should be a priority above all others, even gun violence, it has to start here. We need everyone 18+ on the voter rolls, we should be throwing birthday parties in high schools, signing them up as soon as they’re eligible.
NOTE This conversation is just a small part of a bigger discussion, “Conversations of King: Give Us the Ballot” hosted by WHYY and Newcore Philly (broadcast on 90.9FM Jan 17, 2022). Panelists were played a portion of MLK’s famously inspiring speech, introduced by NewCORE multi-racial interfaith’s president, Rev. Dr. Malcolm Byrd.
Rev. Dr. Malcolm Byrd: We’d like to invite you to travel back to that still racially segregated historic Friday on May 17 of 1957 and to smuggle yourself with us into the bustling crowd of 30,000 brothers and sisters on this overcast 70 degree day at the Lincoln Memorial for the more than three hour Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, celebrating the third anniversary of the Brown versus Topeka Board of Education, Supreme Court decision to end school segregation.
There, the main speaker, the robed and impressive Baptist preacher and emerging national leader, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. appealed to the Congress and to America’s 34th President Dwight D. Eisenhower to give us the ballot. Thus begins a new dimension of the movement. The opportunity available to us these 65 years later, is to reclaim our voice and demand that the Senate give us the ballot. Let’s review that speech again, together.
Mr. Chairman, distinguished platform associates, fellow Americans. Three years ago the Supreme Court of this nation rendered in simple, eloquent, and unequivocal language a decision which will long be stenciled on the mental sheets of succeeding generations. For all men of goodwill, this May seventeenth decision came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of human captivity. It came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of disinherited people throughout the world who had dared only to dream of freedom.
Unfortunately, this noble and sublime decision has not gone without opposition. This opposition has often risen to ominous proportions. Many states have risen up in open defiance. The legislative halls of the South ring loud with such words as “interposition” and “nullification.”
But even more, all types of conniving methods are still being used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters. The denial of this sacred right is a tragic betrayal of the highest mandates of our democratic tradition. And so our most urgent request to the president of the United States and every member of Congress is to give us the right to vote. [Audience:] (Yes)
Give us the ballot, and we will no longer have to worry the federal government about our basic rights.
Give us the ballot (Yes), and we will no longer plead to the federal government for passage of an anti-lynching law; we will by the power of our vote write the law on the statute books of the South and bring an end to the dastardly acts of the hooded perpetrators of violence.
Give us the ballot (Give us the ballot), and we will transform the salient misdeeds of bloodthirsty mobs into the calculated good deeds of orderly citizens.
Give us the ballot (Give us the ballot), and we will fill our legislative halls with men of goodwill and send to the sacred halls of Congress men who will not sign a “Southern Manifesto” because of their devotion to the manifesto of justice. (Tell ’em about it)
Give us the ballot (Yeah), and we will place judges on the benches of the South who will do justly and love mercy, and we will place at the head of the southern states governors who will, who have felt not only the tang of the human, but the glow of the Divine.
Give us the ballot (Yes), and we will quietly and nonviolently, without rancor or bitterness, implement the Supreme Court’s decision of May 17th 1954. (That’s right)…..
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