It’s Hard Not to Go to the Polls When a Generation of African-Americans Risked—and Sometimes Lost—Their Lives to Get You There
When we were growing up in South Los Angeles, my siblings and I often heard my dad’s impromptu sermons about matters of importance: the value of education, the perils of purchasing on credit, the virtue of hard work, and the dire necessity of voting.
“People died so we could vote,” he’d say.
We weren’t talking about faraway countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, but the U.S.A., in the not very distant past.
In the 1950s, when my parents were kids, the NAACP began an effort to register voters in the small rural Louisiana town where they lived. Local African-American residents, like my mother’s father and the father of her friend Curtis Spears Jr., participated in the effort.
One day Curtis’s father returned from town beaten and bloodied. The assault had come at the hands of the town marshal, who later explained it as a case of “mistaken identity.” Not long afterward, the loan on the family’s farm was recalled by the local lending institution.
My mother remembers her mother and others memorizing the Preamble to the Constitution and various historical facts before heading to the polls to face questions from a poll worker. But preparation didn’t always help.
“They’d ask you: ‘How many bubbles in a bar of soap?” my dad said.
Any answer was wrong if the poll worker wanted it to be and the bid to vote ended there.
The true price of the ballot was reinforced many years later, in the mid 1990s, when I met my friend Frank Godden, a World War II veteran, a graduate of Tuskegee Institute and a businessman.
As a small boy growing up in Live Oak, Florida, he remembered his father telling him: “When you finish school I want you to leave Live Oak, leave the South. You spend too much time trying to be accepted as a citizen.”
Frank had eight brothers and sisters, a dog named Scout, a horse named Fannie, and plenty of friends. Life was good, as far as he could see—until the issue of black people voting arose in the early 1920s.
The voting efforts in Live Oak were part of a larger campaign by African Americans in Florida to use the ballot as a means of defeating Jim Crow laws that segregated nearly every part of Southern life.
In Live Oak, the town’s black leaders decided to run a candidate for office. They gathered on the porch of the Godden home one Sunday and nominated Frank’s father, a livestock farmer and minister, to run for postmaster. Rev. Godden was elected and, the way Frank remembered it, that vote on the porch was the beginning of the end.
Frank’s father received threats, including a letter that he carried in his wallet. Then one night a carload full of men drove to the Godden house. A man jumped out and lobbed a firebomb that landed on the porch of the home and exploded, leaving a crater that extended into the living room of the home.
Anxious about the possibility of violence, Frank’s parents had sent the children to their grandparents’ house for the evening. So thankfully, nobody was hurt.
But that day, the family packed up their lives and left Live Oak forever, on a train headed to New Orleans.
The bombing might have stripped Frank of his faith in democracy. Instead, Frank became fervent about voting, community involvement, collective action—from the neighborhood block club, to the college alumni association, to his political party. He remained a believer in the democratic process. He followed politics like others follow sports. Today my parents, too, are avid voters, going to the polls for races that feature only city councilmembers and candidates for sheriff, in addition to the ones for president.
To be American is to appreciate and acknowledge those who died so we could vote, who faced bombs and beatings, and lost farms—and voted anyway. They are owed a debt, payable in the currency of participation in the democratic process.
Jocelyn Y. Stewart is a journalist and screenwriter based in Los Angeles. She wrote this for What It Means to Be American, a national conversation hosted by the Smithsonian and Zocalo Public Square.