Exactly fifty years ago, Civil Rights activists in Mississippi launched one of the most significant acts of direct democracy in U.S. history. After two bloody, grueling years of trying to register black voters in the face of massive retaliatory violence, Bob Moses and Allard Lowenstein of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), along with leaders in the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) decided to create their own ballots and polling stations so that the disenfranchised could participate in state-wide elections. Dubbed the “The Freedom Vote,” the seeds were planted on August 6th, when the movement mobilized some 27,000 unregistered black voters to show up at the polls for the gubernatorial primary with ballots in hand. The votes were not just symbolic; there was a legal precedent dating back to Reconstruction when the state passed a law allowing ex-Confederates to cast provisional ballots on the basis that they had been unlawfully disfranchised. The men who had lost the vote for waging war on the federal government in a doomed effort to protect slavery, had now turned to the federal courts for the restoration of their voting rights. (Fortunately for them, they never saw jail time for their crimes.) A century later, Black Mississippians had cast their own provisional ballots, as they sought federal intervention to restore their voting rights.
Predictably, the white supremacists manning the polls were not having it; black voters met violence and their ballots were dismissed, if not destroyed. But 27,000 ballots exceeded all expectations and laid the groundwork for the statewide “Freedom Vote” in November. Rather than deal with the official polling stations, Bob Moses proposed creating a parallel apparatus, where people could safely cast their ballots presumably free of violence and intimidation. The Freedom Vote was intended to dramatize the exclusion of African-Americans from the political process and to challenge claims made by Mississippi Senators and the press that low black turnout was due to “apathy”–not repression. But Moses also understood the campaign as a challenge to the legitimacy of a democracy based on white supremacy. It became a de facto referendum on the functioning of democracy in the United States as a whole. Freedom polls were open to all Mississippians, not just African Americans. And the very act of campaigning, debating, and voting provided political education, a forum to exercise the franchise, and established the mechanics of a functioning democracy—something white Mississippians had failed to do. In other words, this wasn’t just a “mock” election or a show to draw federal support for voting rights. The Freedom Vote campaign was partly a response to the Kennedy administration’s refusal to protect Civil Rights workers, and the justice department’s decision in April 1963 to withdraw an injunction against white officials in LeFlore County, Mississippi, to desist in barring potential registrants.
The Freedom Vote campaign was nothing short of revolutionary. They ran veteran activist and COFO president Aaron Henry for governor (Medgar Evers, the likely candidate, had been assassinated a few months earlier), and a young white chaplain of Tougaloo College named Ed King, for lieutenant governor. COFO also put up fourteen candidates for local office in LeFlore County, including Cleveland Jordan for sheriff and SNCC staff member Willie Peacock for district attorney. Besides the slate’s interracial make-up, the candidates ran on a fairly radical platform that included the right of labor to organize and engage in collective bargaining; a $1.25 minimum wage; support for farm cooperatives in place of sharecropping and dispossession; the provision of low-interest loans for small farmers; a progressive land tax on tracts of land over 500 acres and tax exemption for those with plots smaller than 500 acres.
From November 2 – 4, local campaign workers and dozens of white Yale and Stanford students canvassed the state, running veiled polling stations, taking ballots from workers picking cotton in the fields, in churches, community centers, and all the while talking about politics, justice, and what was possible under a real multiracial democracy. They were followed, arrested, shot at, beaten, and still managed to collect some 85,000 ballots (about 1/5th of the black voting age population). None of their candidates won, but their efforts gave birth to the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, opened the door for the Voting Rights Act and the achievement of the universal franchise for the first time in the South, and transformed black workers and sharecroppers into the architects of modern American democracy.
Fifty years later, the Labor/Community Strategy Center and its allied organizations, notably the Bus Riders Union and the Community Rights Union, have united under the banner, “Fight for the Soul of the Cities” and launched their own version of the Freedom Vote. Known as the “Voting Rights Referendum for Trayvon Martin,” activists are asking the predominantly black and brown residents of South Los Angeles to vote on two demands: 1) that the justice department under President Obama immediately investigate and indict George Zimmerman for violating the civil rights of Trayvon Martin under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009; 2) That the justice department investigate and indict the Sanford Police Department for violating Martin’s civil rights under the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. Neither of these initiatives requires Congressional approval, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and subsequent legislation give the president and the justice department the authority to act. The referendum began on August 2nd and will close on August 30th.
Why vote? Why a referendum? Why not go the path of most organizations: issue the demands and protest? Like Mississippi’s Freedom Vote, the Voting Rights Referendum for Trayvon Martin is not a “mock” election intended simply to pressure the federal government to act. It is also an indictment on the widening disenfranchisement of black and brown, mostly working-class people, and a struggle to restore and expand democracy—not just in South Los Angeles, but across the nation. We hear pundits across the ideological spectrum warning of democracy’s current crisis, though for people of color it has always been in crisis. The foundational principles of any democracy—a free, equal, universal, adult suffrage based on a secret ballot; civil freedoms of speech, conscience, assembly, association, and the press; and freedom from arrest (and assassination) without trial—are being violated everyday. We can talk about drone warfare and targeted killing in place of a trial; indefinite detention of so-called terror suspects without charge; and indefinite solitary confinement. We can point to rampant voter suppression, now given legal support with the partial suspension of the Voting Rights Act; the outrageous growth of corporate political power and Wall Street’s unspoken immunity from the rule of law; and the replacement of democratically elected governments with appointed emergency financial managers in the state of Michigan. Fifty years after the Freedom Vote, some 5.85 million adults are either permanently or temporarily denied the right to vote because they are convicted felons—a group representing about eight percent of the black voting age population. Millions of undocumented residents who contribute more than their share of taxes and revenue are denied citizenship and therefore the right to vote. Finally, like black Mississippians in the late 1950s, we are living under a police state, where law enforcement agencies have very little accountability to the people they are paid to “protect and serve”; where urban schools are increasingly militarized under the guise of maintaining order and control (not ensuring student safety); and where standard operating procedure allows police officers to stop and frisk, beat, terrorize, and even justifiably take the lives of black and brown people because they look suspicious. Stand Your Ground Laws are nothing if not a throwback to the armed violence of the White Citizens’ Councils and the kind of paramilitary organizations that kept black and brown people “in their place.”
The point of the referendum, then, is to create a democratic process, to enfranchise people in an age of disenfranchisement, around an issue that has deeply affected the nation and exposed the fissures of racism. The referendum extends the right to vote to all residents of South Los Angeles – the undocumented, ex-felons, the youth, and all those who have been discriminated against, intimidated, or denied the franchise. For many residents, this will be the first time their votes will count. Under the able leadership of Sunyoung Yang, Ashley Franklin, Mariela Martinez, Barbara Lott Holland, Ronald Collins, and others, activists have set up voting booths in front of churches and major intersections, at the farmer’s markets, community centers, and are moving through various neighborhoods with mobile voting booths. Since the campaign began on August 2nd, they have already collected over 1,500 votes, mostly African-American, though Latinos cast about ten percent of the votes—a notable accomplishment in a community with few examples of Black/Latino unity. Every voter must register, and campaign workers are expected to engage the voters, as SNCC field workers had half a century ago.
As I write these words, dozens of activists—Black, Latino, Asian and white, queer and straight, young and hold—are explaining what is at stake, linking the denial of justice for Trayvon and the millions like him with the lack of political power and representation in their own communities, the lack of jobs, decent schools, affordable housing, growing rates of incarceration, police violence, and the many forms of insecurity residents struggle with every day. They are reminding voters that the Sanford police took 45 days before indicting Zimmerman, and they only did so after national outcry. In the interim, the police mishandled evidence and members of the force protected Zimmerman rather than do their jobs. They are explaining that the justice department not only has the authority to bring these charges, but it has already investigated 13 other police departments, forcing some to sign consent decrees agreeing to alter practices around racial profiling, brutality, and protecting the right of due process. As Strategy Center founder Eric Mann pointed out at the campaign’s launch event, “Our goal isn’t to collect the most votes but to create educated voters.”
The work is slow and difficult, in part because the African-American community is reluctant to make demands on President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder. Besides race loyalty, the general feeling is that the Republicans have already declared war on Obama and Holder, so if anything they need to be defended. But even staunch Obama supporters have come around, seeing the referendum confirming the NAACP’s call for the federal government to file Civil Rights charges against Zimmerman. Mann added, “the demand about the Sanford Police Department got a lot of conversation and people on the streets thought that was an important addition. When we asked people if they thought the president was doing enough for civil rights, everyone but someone from the Nation of Islam said, “yes” but when we asked them if he should take aggressive action to investigate and indict, they did feel that the first Black president should do more.”
While many intellectuals and policy makers are preparing for a national dialogue on race, Fight for the Soul of the Cities is taking action against racism and injustice, and attempting to build strong, self-empowered democratic institutions in a community where the jobless rate is 40% higher than it was during the L.A. Rebellion of 1992. Fortunately, the Labor/Community Strategy Center has a track record in South L.A. predating the rebellion. It helped lead the mobilization against the Bush administration’s “weed and seed” program to boost the police presence after 1992, and through the Bus Riders Union, they won a landmark lawsuit in 1994 against Los Angeles County MTA, for Violating Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Through a ten-year Consent Decree with the MTA, the Bus Riders Union and its allies were able to wrangle $2.5 billion in fare reductions, natural gas buses, and other changes for 500,000 low-income bus riders. (That fight is far from over.) And the Community Rights Union recently forced the city council to modify its daytime curfew ordinance and other laws that have targeted and criminalized students of color in the public school system.
As with the first historic “Freedom Vote,” the “Voting Rights Referendum for Trayvon Martin” proves once again that the nation’s most important architects of modern democracy are often those who enjoyed partial rights of citizenship or were not citizens at all. We must not forget that Democracy (or what W.E.B. Du Bois called “Abolition-Democracy”) was our gift to the United States—by our, I mean the descendants of slaves, working people, women, immigrants, the homeless and destitute, the imprisoned. What is happening in South L.A. ought to be replicated throughout the country. This is what democracy looks like, and its restoration and regeneration cannot wait on the courts or the federal government to act. We can have a dialogue on race until we’re blue in the face, but if we want to eliminate racism and build a robust democracy rooted in the principles of what those SNCC activists in Mississippi described as the “Beloved Community,” the Fight for the Soul of the Cities offers a powerful model for movement building.
If you agree, don’t just retweet! Get involved.
The people’s referendum is a powerful tool (just ask Chileans). Email at [email protected]; checkout facebook.com/FightfortheSouloftheCities; Twitter @FightSoulCities, using hashtags #PeoplesVote4Trayvon
Robin D. G. Kelley, who teaches at UCLA, is the author of the remarkable biography Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (2009) and most recently Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times (2012).