Civil movement

A plea from a veteran of the civil rights movement – vote

As a child growing up in the segregated South, I was involved in the fight for suffrage for over six decades.

My involvement in the civil rights movement led to my being imprisoned while working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and propelled me to a life of public service, engaging and defending democracy.

In the 1970s, I ran for city council in Greensboro, North Carolina, and lost by just 101 votes in a district of hundreds of thousands of people. Many of those I considered friends half-heartedly apologized later, saying, “I didn’t think my vote would count. You can imagine what it’s like to hear that.

Your vote matters – especially in this election cycle – and any additional obstacles that stand in your way only erode the democratic process.

At this unprecedented and crucial time in our nation’s history, we must remember how many people paid the price for our right to vote. Voting is not a chore. All the sacrifices made to ensure our right to vote make it a sacred act. Many groups actively seek to disenfranchise you. Do not hesitate, do not be afraid. You must exercise your right to vote.

In my decades of public service, working to defend democracy has taken many different forms, from working with the Peace Corps in Liberia to being appointed by President Jimmy Carter to lead the national Head Start program. The stakes are so high in Pennsylvania during this election that my work continues here today: For the past three weeks, I’ve joined POWER Interfaith on their Freedom Express bus tour across the state – recording and mobilizing voters, demonstrating at contested ballot boxes, and celebrating the incredible power of our votes.

Over the years, I have learned a lot about the real work of democracy. Democracy comes from the Greek and means “power of the people”. What is our power? Our power is to have a voice in decision-making. Our power is to be able to choose leaders to represent our collective interests. Our power is sacred.

We must be able to recognize and defend ourselves against threats to democracy in order to exercise our power. Voter suppression is a threat that comes in many forms. This can appear as challenges to mail-in or mail-in ballots, understaffed polling stations creating long voting delays, voter intimidation at polling stations or drop boxes, or the pure and simple violence.

I’m disappointed when I see courts handing down decisions that make it harder to vote, like the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision that tells counties to separate mail-in ballots with no handwritten date on the return envelope, but not to count them. No one should be disenfranchised over an irrelevant technical detail.

I often remember an old Portuguese mantra of sit-ins and voter registration movements, where I drove people to the polls every election day, “a luta continua” – the struggle continues. The work of guaranteeing our rights is not the work of a single electoral cycle, nor of a single generation, nor even of a lifetime. It is a work that has lasted as long as people yearn for freedom and justice.

In this struggle, we all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us and lift up those who will come after us. Working to build multi-faith and multi-racial solidarity is a direct continuation of the work to which I have been committed for all these decades, and the work is as urgent as it has ever been. We must fight for freedom and use our freedom for the collective good. We have to vote.

Sia Barbara Kamara is a deacon at Faith United Church of Christ in Washington, D.C. A civil rights activist and participant in the sit-in movement in the 1960s, she is a former Associate Commissioner of the United States Department of Health and Human Services.