By Jacoria Borders
I am a woman. I am a Black American. I am a millennial. I am a native of Marianna, Florida, “The City of Southern Charm,” and a proud alum of Florida A&M University. My mother always raised me to believe that when I leave home, I represent my family and my community, that I should treat people with respect, keep my word, give my best in whatever I am doing, and to always serve others.
I wasn’t yet old enough to vote in the presidential election of 2008, but I saw this historic moment through my mother’s eyes. I can remember the night Barack Obama became president-elect. My mother’s eyes filled with tears, and she started shouting praises to God. It happened. For the first time in U.S. history, a Black man was elected president. Being from a small rural town in north Florida, where she attended segregated schools until her class was the first to integrate the high school, my mother was overwhelmed with joy. It was the first time I saw so much pride and hope throughout the Black community in my hometown. However, despite the victory, there was anger, blatant racism and agitation.
I remember going to school the next day wearing a t-shirt that displayed President-Elect Barack Obama, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. Across the front, the shirt read “I have a dream.” My shirt was reported as offensive, and a teacher stopped me in the hallway. After I refused to take off the shirt, she threatened to write a referral. Now, my mother warned me about wearing the shirt and reminded me of where we lived, but I told my mother the same thing I said to that teacher: “I come to this school every day, and I am offended by the confederate flags students are allowed to fly on their vehicles and wear on their clothing. This shirt displays our president-elect and Dr. Martin Luther King, and if I have to remove my shirt, so does he.” I was referring to another student wearing a t-shirt with confederate flags on the front and back. That was the end of that conversation, and I was still wearing my shirt.
This interaction has stuck with me forever. The mere presence of Black excellence, power and knowledge on a t-shirt was offensive. Although I wasn’t old enough to vote in 2008, in 2012, I voted with pride and cried tears of joy, remembering this moment from high school, and remembering that as I was voting, I was representing the future I wanted to see for my community, my family, and my generation.
Having the right to vote is my most powerful weapon. The vote is my protest, voice and action. It is my endorsement of support for those who are supposed to be representative of and accountable to me.
Having the right to vote is a privilege that I hold as a Black woman in America because of people like Marie Foster, Amelia Boynton Robinson and Congressman John Lewis. Marie Foster attempted to register to vote eight times before succeeding and started coaching others to pass the voter registration tests deliberately designed to suppress Black Americans. The marches from Selma to Montgomery were planned in Mrs. Boynton Robinson’s living room, and Congressman John Lewis’s beating by Alabama State Troopers led to our right to vote today. All three of these individuals fought for all of us to have free and fair elections.
As a millennial, I’m motivated because there are those who want to take away our power and voice in the community by creating barriers to the ballot box. This is simply a reincarnation of the era before the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But, I’m encouraged, because there is an even larger community doing the necessary work to make voting a way of life. In this fight, we must develop creative ways to make voting accessible, easy, and a part of popular culture. Registering to vote and the act of voting should be as easy as opening your favorite mobile app and as cool as attending a Beyoncé, Drake or Taylor Swift concert. Amelia Boynton Robinson said that “a voteless people is a hopeless people,” and I believe that people of color and young people have never been hopeless, so that means we have to vote like our lives depend on it and like we are representing everyone and every place we come from.
I’m proud to apply my passion for voting rights to my work at The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation on behalf of our chairman and his family, who truly believe that everyone should have equal access to their right to vote and are taking the steps to make that a reality. We’ve supported varied organizations like Brennan Center for Justice, Neo Philanthropy/State Infrastructure Fund, For Freedoms, and ProPublica. Here in our home state of Georgia, where voter suppression disproportionately affects people of color, we’re working with New Georgia Project and Fair Fight as they tackle the on-the-ground issues that are preventing our fellow Georgians from casting their vote.
The last major barrier to fall is the most significant disparity in voting rights today – the gutting of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In 2013, a 5-4 majority Supreme Court ruling swept away a vital provision of this landmark civil rights law in Shelby County v. Holder. Several states have since implemented strict voter ID laws and purged voter rolls. This theft of voting rights is the diagnosis and root source of the many symptoms we see across our country today. The solution is to restore the Voting Rights Act to its full power and pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.
We all have the power to make change. In the words of the late Congressman Lewis, “The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent we have in a democratic society.” The vote is a collective voice of the community, that when exercised together has the power to shape our country. It is the power of the vote that can change outcomes long-term by disrupting the existing racist systems and electing leaders who are representative of and accountable to all constituents and not just the ones they like. Although we spend much of our time talking about federal elections, it’s important that we remember that voting starts local and the power begins in our own backyards. It is up to each of us to determine who becomes the next sheriff, district attorney, superior court judge, mayor or county commissioner.
Finally, I urge you all to listen, support and follow the direction of the young people in your lives. Young people are literally and figuratively our future. Every major moment in the tapestry of our country’s history is built on our elders’ knowledge and the action of young people. There were the Greensboro Four, the Little Rock Nine, Ruby Bridges, the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Children’s March of 1963. John Lewis was 23 when he spoke at the March on Washington and 25 when he led 600 people across Edmond Pettus Bridge.Frederick Douglass fought for his freedom while in his teens. James “Major” Woodall is 26 and was the youngest elected president of the Georgia NAACP. Akeem Baker started the #RunWithMaud campaign to turn his pain into purpose and bring attention to the unjust murder of his best friend, Ahmaud Arbery.
Our young people are leading the fight for voting rights, racial justice, climate change, gun reform, DACA, student loan forgiveness, and so much more. Young people realize that to fix what is broken, you must vote for what you believe in. Not voting is simply not an option. Whether you go to the polls or mail in your ballot, please join us in this fight, and VOTE.