It was a typically warm spring day and a twelve-year-old black boy was covering his eyes behind a tree, as his friends scurried away from him. Like many other kids who have played hide-and-go-seek he found himself wondering, "How did I end up here?"
But this was no ordinary day, and he and his friends were not playing games. Neither were the angry men who turned fire hoses into weapons and terrified defenseless children with attack dogs. This was 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama, and Freeman Hrabowski was a student leader of the children's section of a civil rights march to the steps of city hall. Some forty-three years removed from those struggles and the resultant passage of the Voting Rights Act, Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, nationally acclaimed president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County ponders another question, one he never thought he'd hear from African-Americans:
Why should I vote?
According to the 2004 U.S. census there were 23 million African Americans aged 18 and over. Of these only 16 million (69%) are registered to vote, and only 14 million actually voted in the 2004 presidential campaign. This means only 60% of African-Americans eligible to vote actually voted. While this represents a three percent increase over 2000, the gap has increased from five to seven percent behind the 67% rate of non-Hispanic whites.
"A lot of my students say voting is not as important in the post civil rights world," said Dr. Hrabowski, whose research and publications focus on participation and performance of African-American males. "But I first encourage them to become more involved in the political process. The more you understand the process, the more you understand how important the right to vote is."
A prime example of this involvement is the time Senator Obama spent as a community organizer working on behalf of the poor on the south side of Chicago. It is this experience which allowed him to hone the skills necessary to develop an unprecedented grassroots political organization which could help him capture the White House.
Dr. Hrabowski's parents were educators who were politically active and took him to civil rights meetings where he heard Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, and others speak. "Mostly I sat in the back doing homework, but my curiosity was piqued when I heard that this could help me go to better schools. My mind's eye opened to the possibilities. So, when Dr. King asked for volunteers I asked my parents."
Though they were ultimately successful in integrating Birmingham, it was not without significant sacrifice. Dr. Hrabowski was a classmate of Cynthia Wesley, one of the four little girls murdered in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. He relived this painful memory in the Spike Lee documentary "Four Little Girls." "It is not a cliché when people say many lives were lost for your right to vote."
There is a powerful African ritual of pouring libation in memory of ancestors that has been integrated into African-American culture. In reverence to the historical significance of this presidential campaign, let's empower the memory of two specific loved ones lost by helping at least two others to the polls on Election Day.
"You are the change you have been waiting for."
Senator Barack Obama