OPINION COLUMNS

Think twice about sitting out the election

By Brian Knox | Published Saturday, October 8, 2016
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Plenty of stories have been written about people planning on sitting out next month’s election because they don’t like either candidate for president.

It’s certainly their choice, and their right, to vote or not vote.

But every time I see or read a story on this topic, my thoughts return to a place I visited two months ago: Selma, Ala.

Brian Knox

Brian Knox

Many people may be familiar with Selma from the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. biopic of the same name released last year. The film describes the events surrounding three civil rights marches that began in Selma and, with the third march, ended at the state capitol building in Montgomery, Ala.

The cause that united those participants? The right to vote for everyone, including African-Americans.

The first march became known as Bloody Sunday, as civil rights marchers were stopped just after crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge by Alabama state troopers and county officers. The troopers advanced on the marchers, attacking them with clubs and tear gas.

We stopped at a visitors center located near the bridge where I learned even more about that day. One woman who was interviewed about Bloody Sunday said that troopers even went into the church where the march originated and into people’s homes to drag them back outside and beat them.

Driving into town, we passed the now-vacant Good Samaritan Hospital where so many of those wounded on that day were treated.

We drove over the bridge, past the spot where John Lewis, one of the leaders of the march and now a U.S. congressman from Georgia, was violently struck in the head.

We followed the same road the marchers took, passing the various campsites where the few brave locals who supported the marchers’ cause allowed them to stay.

As we made our way to Montgomery, we listened to the speech given by Dr. King at the conclusion of the march, just a block away from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church where he once preached.

King outlined how the South had become segregated in the years following the emancipation of slaves and the importance in continuing to fight for equality, especially with the right to vote. While technically allowed to vote, African-Americans were subject to a variety of obstacles such as poll taxes, literacy tests or threats of violence if they attempted to register to vote.

There’s a part of that speech that stood out to me as I listened to it, perhaps because it seems particularly relevant in the current election cycle:

“Let us march on ballot boxes until race baiters disappear from the political arena.

“Let us march on ballot boxes until the salient misdeeds of blood-thirsty mobs will be transformed into the calculated good deeds of orderly citizens.

“Let us march on ballot boxes until the Wallaces of our nation tremble away in silence.

“Let us march on ballot boxes until we send to our city councils, state legislatures, and the United States Congress men who would not fear to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with thy God.

“Let us march on ballot boxes until brotherhood becomes more than a meaningless word in an opening prayer but the order of the day on every legislative agenda.

“Let us march on ballot boxes until all over Alabama God’s children will be able to walk the earth in decency and honor.”

In Montgomery, we visited the Civil Rights Memorial, a beautiful black granite circular table etched with the names of people who died in the fight for equality. Water flows across the top of the table, just as it flows across a granite wall located just behind the table. The wall is etched with part of a quote given by Dr. King during his speech at the conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery march:

“… until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

While the aim of the march was to bring attention to the struggle of African-Americans who wanted to fully participate in the democratic process of voting, even those of us who aren’t black should be thankful that these courageous men and women risked their lives, and in some cases sacrificed their lives, to make sure the election process is truly representative of us all.

But it is only truly representative if we all vote. Unfortunately only about half of us do in a presidential election year.

The stakes are high in this year’s election.

It is certainly anybody’s right to sit this one out.

But I believe we would all be better served if we instead had a “march on ballot boxes,” as Dr. King put it.

Brian Knox is the Messenger’s special projects manager.

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