One of the things that often gets overlooked in America today is the importance of grassroots mass movements in creating progress. Very often we are told that the most important thing that we can do to create change and to express our voices within the political system is to vote. We see slogans such as “Your Vote is Your Voice” which help to reinforce this idea. The African American community, especially, is urged to vote because of the fact that our ancestors fought and died for the right to vote. That is a historical fact, but that is also where I think issues arise.
We hear often that African Americans fought, suffered, went to jail, and even died for the right to vote. What gets overlooked is that they did not win the right to vote through voting. The right for African Americans to vote was earned through protesting, boycotting, and most importantly through organized mass movements. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was a mass movement that achieved change not through the ballot box, but through organizing people towards a common goal and forcing change.
Anyone familiar with the history of African American voting rights would also be aware that the voting rights that were won in the 1960s were rights that African Americans once possessed. After slavery was abolished in 1865, the 14th and 15th amendments ensured that African Americans had full rights of citizenship and the ability to vote. The period known as the Reconstruction Era, which lasted from 1865 until 1877, saw an estimated 2,000 African Americans elected into public office. This included the first African American senator, representative, mayor, and governor. Certainly one looking on at the events that were unfolding at the time would have concluded that African Americans were making progress because they were now able to vote and were, in many states, voting other African Americans into office. What is often overlooked is that within a very short period of time these gains were reversed and African Americans found their voting rights once again being restricted. Even today we see attempts being made to restrict the ability of African Americans to vote.
We also often forget that the very gains of that Reconstruction Era came not out of voting, but out of activism. Men and women such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Martin Delany, Henry Highland Garnett, and others fought tirelessly to abolish slavery in the United States and to achieve equal rights for African Americans. They did not do so through voting, but through activism and struggle. When the Civil War broke it, it was these same abolitionists that constantly worked to ensure that the plight of enslaved African Americans would be on the forefront of the issues dominating the war. President Abraham Lincoln himself explained that his primary concern was not so much the abolition of slavery, but maintaining the Union. Not only did Douglass and Delany continue to press the issue of abolishing slavery, but they both denounced the racism that existed even within the Union Army.
The point here is that African Americans did not vote to end slavery. They organized and they fought through a number of means. There were newspapers, such as Douglass’ North Star, which were used to expose and denounce slavery. There was the Underground Railroad, which actually led slaves away from slave plantations and towards freedom. There were even some, such as Delany, that were actively seeking to found settlements in Africa in an attempt to stop the slave trade at its very source. African Americans fought slavery through a number of means, none of which involved voting.
The final example I wish to give is women’s suffrage in the United States. Like African Americans, women did not vote to earn the right to vote. This was achieved through activism and through organized mass movements. The National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) was at the forefront of this movement. The NAWSA was an organization that involved over two million people. This organization played a pivotal role in the eventual passage of the 19th amendment, which gave women the right to vote.
This is not to discourage people from voting or to suggest that one should not vote, but to demonstrate that historically some of the most dramatic social changes in the United States have come through organizing mass movements. This is especially critical today where we have a two-party system that is essentially rigged in such a way that both parties serve the interests of a small rich elite rather than representing the interests of the masses of poor and working class Americans. To change these conditions people must not only be organizing to vote whenever there is an election year, but also organizing within the community to empower those communities and to form movements which will address the issues within those communities from a grassroots perspective. That is truly the essence of change.
-Dwayne Wong (Omowale)