Honoring MLK by turning out at the polls

'Voting is the foundation stone for political action'

AS WE LOOK toward next month’s municipal election in Boston, we must mobilize and get out the vote.

Reflecting on the past, we remember that on May 17, 1957, Martin Luther King addressed 25,000 civil-rights activists gathered at the Lincoln Memorial for the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom. While the location was the same as his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the 1957 speech is far less well known. It was part of an effort organized to mark the third anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and to encourage the government to enforce the decision, which was being obstructed or ignored by state and local leaders in much of the South.

The focus of Dr. King’s speech, however, was not education. It was disenfranchisement — and as is so often the case, his words ring as true today as they did 64 years ago. “So long as I do not firmly and irrevocably possess the right to vote, I do not possess myself,” said King. ”I cannot make up my mind — it is made up for me. I cannot live as a democratic citizen, observing the laws I have helped to enact — I can only submit to the edict of others.” It took seven years until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 codified the pathway for change. But while noble in their ambition, we know that even today full citizenship guaranteed by these laws is only partially implemented, and continually under attack.

Today, Black voters continue to be the primary target of voter suppression and intimidation. Black and brown people continue to have their voting rights curtailed by cynical efforts to block the rights of those with criminal records. We have been denied access to the polls by rules limiting early voting, poll locations, and hours. Worse, these restrictions are being put into place with the full complicity of the courts that are supposed to protect our interests. In 2013, the Supreme Court stripped crucial provisions of the Voting Rights Act and attacks on voting rights returned. More than 400 restrictive voting bills have been introduced around the country this year, with 30 laws already enacted. The impact is not only legal — indeed, proponents of these measures inflict a level of apathy and discouragement among Black and other voters of color.

In Boston, we have seen the long-term effects of racism and how it translates to voter lethargy. In a historic mayoral preliminary that featured three Black candidates, none could make it to the runoff. Despite the historic opportunity and the unlikely coupling of COVID-19 and technology to make possible a record number of virtual opportunities to learn about the candidates, voter turnout lagged previous elections, with the lowest turnout in many BIPOC-majority districts.

And we must recognize that our get-out-the-vote efforts aren’t just about November 2. They are about empowering the residents of Boston to have their rightful say in electing candidates who share their vision for their city, state, and nation. With that in mind, we call on our leaders to take steps to protect and expand the lawful right to vote by doing the following:

  • Election-Day registration. This would allow people to cast a ballot on the same day as they register to vote – a two-step process with direct correlation to increased participation in historically disenfranchised communities.
  •  Pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and Freedom to Vote Act. At the federal level, these would end partisan gerrymandering, enshrine the right to vote, expand early voting and vote by mail, and rightfully enfranchise Americans who lost the right to vote in federal elections because of criminal convictions – a group made up of mostly people of color.

Getting our leaders to act begins with our own actions. We encourage all Boston voters to engage with this critical election, tune into forums, and learn about the candidates. King Boston and the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts are proud to co-host the final televised forum with candidates Michelle Wu and Annissa Essaibi George on October 26th at 7 pm on NBC10.

If Dr. King were alive today, he would be pleased to see the historic field of candidates in both the mayoral race and the City Council contests. He would know that through a large number of forums, debates, and conversations, citizens have had the opportunity to hear questions asked by issue experts from early education to environmental justice. But now would be our turn. In this historic Boston election, we must make good on this hard-fought opportunity to cast our vote and make our voices heard. We must bring souls to the polls and understand what Dr. King told us decades ago: “Voting is the foundation stone for political action.”

Meet the Author

Imari Paris Jeffries

Executive director, King Boston
Meet the Author
Political action is at the polls, where change can begin. Let’s let our collective voices be heard.

Imari Paris Jeffries is the executive director of King Boston. Segun Idowu is president of the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts.