Rosa Parks, a black seamstress, was an ordinary woman who did a seemingly ordinary thing—not ceding her seat on a bus to a white man—that had extraordinary consequences. Her actions set in motion a historic boycott of the bus system in Montgomery, Alabama and propelled one of that boycott’s leaders, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to national prominence. As Election Day nears and reports indicate that voting by African Americans is depressed in key states, it’s important for blacks, particularly young blacks, to remember the lesson of Rosa Parks: small acts of defiance can become heroism that changes the course of history.
The system of Jim Crow that Parks challenged by defying a law that required her to give up her seat to a white person has not been eradicated in the United States. In 2013, Republicans in North Carolina targeted black voters for suppression by requesting racial data on blacks and whites’ use of early voting and possession of state-issued photo IDs. Once Republicans found that blacks were more likely than whites to early-vote, and less likely to have the requisite IDs, they cut back early voting and implemented a restrictive photo ID requirement that disproportionately prevented blacks from voting.
After its new voting restrictions were struck down by a court for intentionally discriminating against black voters, North Carolina was ordered to restore the original time period for early voting. In recalcitrance reminiscent of the mass resistance of white localities to Brown v. Board of Education, election clerks in several North Carolina counties obeyed the court’s literal order but reduced the number of early voting sites available, thus trying to accomplish indirectly what the court forbade them to do directly.
The behavior of Republicans in North Carolina as well as other black voter suppression efforts in places like Wisconsin, Ohio, Alabama, and Florida may help to explain why black voter turnout is currently trending behind 2012 levels.
Another explanation is that because Barack Obama, the nation’s first African American president, is not on the ballot this election, black voters simply have less incentive to turn out. It’s like believing that if black bus riders in Montgomery didn’t have Martin Luther King, there’d be less reason to protest their second-class treatment. Barack Obama, like King, is a great leader who is not and never purported to be a panacea that relieves African Americans from the necessity of fighting for their own equality.
To be sure, the extraordinary cohesion and turnout levels that black voters marshalled for Obama’s two national elections certainly may have left them with a sense of fatigue. Indeed, this fatigue has been building for decades. Not since 1964 has a Democrat won a majority of the white vote in a presidential election. If not for blacks and other voters of color, there would be no President Jimmy Carter, or Bill Clinton, or Barack Obama, nor the achievements that these men brought to their presidencies, such as, in the case of Obama, pulling the nation back from the brink of a second Great Depression.
So one might reasonably conclude that voters of color have been the guardians of American democracy for a very long time, ensuring robust two-party competition, and, more importantly, providing a counterweight to the electoral judgments of most white voters, who, it must be remembered, have not always shown predictive acuity. Think Richard Nixon and Watergate, and two President Bushes who gave the nation three wars and three recessions over twelve years.
Fatigue, then, is understandable. But ask Rosa Parks why she refused to give up her seat to a white man:
I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was 42. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.
African Americans must not cede their right to decide this election to white Americans, for to do so is no different than giving up one’s seat on a bus as a bow to one’s alleged racial inferiority. Instead, we must express our real fatigue through our votes: We are tired of inequality.