Project the Power of the Black Vote

Marc H. Morial
President and CEO
National Urban League

The news from the voter-registration front is exciting and encouraging: Tens of thousands of new voters are being added to the rolls as the countdown to Election Day continues. And, undoubtedly, many of these newly-registered voters are African-American.

A New York Times dispatch of September 26 about the intensive voter-registration campaigns in the key swing states of Ohio and Florida reported that Democratic registrants were far outnumbering Republican ones.

Although a racial breakdown of the new registrations in Ohio and Florida has not been done, it's evident from the fact that the most dramatic increases in registrations are occurring, as the Times pointed out, primarily in low-income and minority neighborhoods that a significant number of the newly-registered are black.

For example, the Times said that since January new voter registrations in these heavily-Democratic areas of Ohio have risen 250 percent over the comparable period in 2000, compared to a 25-percent increase in Republican strongholds. In Florida, new registrations in Democratic counties have risen 60 percent over the same period in 2000, compared to a 12-percent boost in predominantly Republican counties.

While the Times story, which looked at county-by-county data, specifically discussed only those two states, it noted that similar registration drives have been at work in other swing states. It also added that both Democratic and Republican officials "say record numbers of new voters are being registered nationwide."

The massive voter-registration effort that has swept the nation this year is multi-faceted. Some campaigns are linked to a particular party. Others are not. The National Urban League earlier this year joined with more than 160 other civil rights and civic organizations in the nonpartisan "Unity '04 Voter Empowerment Campaign. Our immediate goal is to boost Black America's voter turnout and make sure each vote is counted on Election Day.

And the details of the Times story indicate that the faith behind that political mobilization effort is bearing fruit. We at the League saw the political excitement building among African Americans earlier this year when both President Bush and Senator Kerry addressed our annual conference in Detroit.

Of course, registering to vote is only part of what must be done—it's meaningless if those registered stay away from the polls on Election Day.

That's why this weekend, as the deadlines for voter registration loom in most states, the Unity '04 coalition members are sponsoring a range of activities across the country designed to emphasize the importance of voting and that protections are being established to insure that each vote will be counted.

We've called it "Protect Our Power Weekend"in order to emphasize that our broader purpose goes beyond just turning out the vote for this election, as important as that is.

But we could just as correctly have called it "project our power weekend,"for our equally important goal is to use the voter-registration effort as another way to create a massive movement for increased civic participation among African Americans—especially in the nation's political life.

More African Americans must understand and act on the belief that political participation is the very lifeblood of our democracy, and that their exercising their right to vote is the foundation of American democracy and of their community's well-being.

Historically speaking, there's no time of the year now more pregnant with meaning for African Americans' participation in politics than the first week in October.

The reason: it was during that week thirty-four years ago that Thurgood Marshall took his seat as the first black Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court.

Marshall's work, and that of the legal eagles by his side, in leading the charge to compel the nation's legal and political system to affirm the "inalienable rights"of African Americans—most especially their right to vote—can't be over-estimated. The victories they forged, the minds they changed, and the consciousness they raised compelled America to redeem the integrity of the American Constitution—and prove the potential of the American Dream.

We must be continually vigilant if the full potential of their work is to be realized. Thus, to insure the confusion and disarray at the polls of 2000 is not repeated, we're also distributing materials throughout black communities explaining the rights voters have at the polls; and we've set up a hotline—1 866 OUR VOTE—that on Election Day will offer immediate legal assistance to voters who encounter difficulty at the polls.

Writer Maida Cassandra Odom, writing in the August issue of the National Urban League's Opportunity Journal, put what must become part of our credo succinctly and powerfully:

"Vote 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.

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