What Would Martin Do?

By: Marc H. Morial
President and CEO
National Urban League

What would Martin Luther King, Jr. do this November 2, Election Day?
And the other men and women who led the planning for the 1963 March on Washington—perhaps the one event which most directly sealed the triumph of the Civil Rights Movement over the attempt to maintain government sanction for racial segregation in America? What would Roy Wilkins, of the NAACP, Walter Reuther, of the United Auto Workers, A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and Whitney M. Young, Jr., of the National Urban League, and their many colleagues do?

They would vote.

And what, come this Election Day, will two others who stood among the leadership that long-ago day—Dorothy Height, founder of the National Council of Negro Women, 90-plus years young and still intellectually and spiritually vigorous, and Rep. John Lewis (Democrat of Georgia), then, at twenty-three—already a battle-tested veteran of civil rights campaigns in some of the most dangerous areas of the South—do?

They will vote.

Now, what are the rest of us Americans who are eligible to vote going to do?

One can pose that as a question, yes. But none of us should think of it as a question.

Instead, we must think of it—of voting—as a duty, as a great civic ritual, as an honor, as a keeping faith with and homage to the many thousands gone who fought to make America free and keep America free.

We know that until just four decades ago that fight was waged not only outside America's borders by those armed with military hardware. It was also waged within the United States as well—by many armed with only a steely, nonviolent determination to let nobody, as the phrase went, "turn me ‘round."

We know that the conclusive answer to the great question Abraham Lincoln posed in the 1860s—whether America could live half-slave and half-free—was in fact not decided until one hundred years later, when the Civil Rights Movement made it clear what the answer had to be if America was to survive at all.

The words these and other Americans spoke then and on other occasions still provide inspiration for us to heed, for example, the command Whitney Young gave at the Lincoln Memorial August 28, 1963 "to do some more marching"to, among many other places, the voting booths.

Voting matters because who we choose as our representatives at every level of government matters. Voting matters because the give and take—and yes, the rough and tumble—of political participation is what gives democracy a chance to work.

Not voting is declaring that democracy doesn't matter. To paraphrase words King spoke in his 1957 "Give Us the Ballot"speech, those who don't vote turn democracy upside down and declare that they themselves cannot live as democratic citizens.

But, of course, democracy does matter—as much now as when the Civil War was being fought in the 1860s; as much now as when, for a century afterward the African-American civil rights movement struggled to make the rhetoric about America being the home of the free become the truth.

That is the message, powerfully put by the scholar Cornel West in his new book, Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism, in which he calls upon Americans to recharge their energies and act on their "deep public reverence for—a love of—democracy in America and a deep democratic tradition."

Fortunately, the news of recent weeks indicates that, as far as the election is concerned, that revival has been occurring. The numbers of new voters registered this year, and especially in recent months, are up sharply in numerous areas across the country, including key battleground states. And the candidates' debates seem to have captured a significant chunk of the public's, not just the pundits', attention.

I have no doubt this would make Martin Luther King, Jr., and all the others, elated—and determined to get more of their fellow citizens more involved in the political process. They all understood that every American's American citizenship is grounded in their access to the ballot box.

Or, as King wrote for the headline of his March 14, 1965 article in the New York Times Magazine: "Civil Right No. 1: The Right to Vote."

Writer Maida Cassandra Odom carried this point forward in the August issue of the National Urban League's Opportunity Journal:

"Vote, she wrote, "because you owe it to history. … Vote because it is your civic duty. … Vote because everything is political whether we like it or not. … Vote because some people don't want you to. … Vote because politicians need to be led by the people. … Vote because your vote does count. … Vote because you have a stake in the future for yourself and for your children, so act like it.
Vote."

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