It’s right around the time my parents were born. My grandparents were a little younger than I am now. A pair of large families growing larger in the suburbs of New Jersey and Rhode Island.
A thousand or so miles away, a pair of families grew smaller.
George Washington Lee was a Baptist preacher in Belzoni, Mississippi. He led four churches and ran a grocery store, the back room of which housed a printing press. As a successful black businessman, he used his influence to help found an NAACP chapter in the area, and used the press to encourage black residents of Belzoni to pay the county’s poll tax and register to vote.
As a result of his efforts, nearly all of the county’s 90 eligible black residents were registered to vote in 1955 before the local White Citizens Council intimidated them into giving up their votes.
Lee, however, refused to give up. Offered protection if he would end his registration drives, he rejected it. In a speech to the Regional Council of Negro Leadership, of which he was vice president, Lee told the audience, “Pray not for your mom and pop. They’ve gone to heaven. Pray you make it through this hell.”
Lee would not.
On May 7, 1955, a shotgun blast blew off half his face while he was driving his car. The local sheriff said Lee died in a car accident, and that the lead pellets removed from the remains of his head were dental fillings, not buckshot.
Rosebud Lee left her husband’s casket open during the funeral, and the Chicago Defender printed a photo of his mangled body – a foretaste of Emmett Till’s funeral later that year.
Three months later, on Aug. 13, World War I veteran Lamar Smith went to the Lincoln County Courthouse in Brookhaven with several other black voters to help them fill out absentee forms so they could cast their ballots in a primary runoff while avoiding the danger of voting in person.
With more than a dozen witnesses, including the sheriff, looking on, a white man shot and killed Smith on the courthouse lawn. No one was ever prosecuted.
Lee and Smith became martyrs that summer, giving their lives for something more powerful than themselves: the vote.
They took almost unthinkable risks because, having been deprived of it for so long, they understood something that many of us take for granted – voting is an act of incredible power.
Eighteen years after their birth, every child born in the United States automatically becomes one of the most powerful people in the history of the world.
This power vests equally and indiscriminately; short of revoking citizenship, it cannot be shirked. Refusal to vote is itself an exercise of power, albeit one in support of the status quo.
You, fellow American, wield something unthinkable to hundreds of thousands of generations of people – the ability to hold accountable men and women who control trillions of dollars in budget expenditures, thousands of nuclear warheads and millions of armed agents of the state.
If this seems like an overstatement, I ask: If casting a ballot is not so powerful, why do those who already have political, social and economic power take so many steps to weaken the vote?
• Why was organizing voters a capital offense when undertaken by black men and women in the South during our parents’ childhood?
• Why does an increasingly white and aging Republican Party rely on the easily debunked myth of voter fraud to justify suppressing the vote of racial and ethnic minorities and college students in states where they have the power to do so?
• Why has gerrymandering become an increasingly precise science, cracking and packing voters to shield members of state and federal legislatures from accountability?
• Why do states, especially in the South, continue to rely on Jim Crow-era felon-disenfranchisement laws to prevent swaths of African Americans from ever casting a ballot?
The answer to these questions is simple. They do these things because they fear the vote in the hands of people who will wield it in self-defense.
And for centuries, the story of power in America has been a story of women and men, previously silenced, prying the power of voting from the grip of those reluctant to relinquish it.
It’s a bloody story – bodies left in vehicles and on courthouse lawns, bodies buried in earthen dams, bodies beaten and jailed and hanged and shot, bodies left to rot in asylums, bodies attacked by dogs and fire hoses, objectified and sexualized, raped and sold.
When my grandparents were born, women nationwide had been eligible to vote in exactly two presidential elections.
When my parents were born, voting in a large portion of the United States was violently restricted to white people.
These gains are not inexorable nor inevitable. They can only be maintained through the raw, brute power of casting a ballot.
Voting is both powerful and precious – a fragile act of strength.
It’s time to use the power you have. Go vote.