Even though 61% of all Africans-Americans voted during the 2008 election, helping to elect the very first black President, much work needs to be done for young blacks to be a part of the political process, say panelists in the NBC Learn "Finishing the Dream" Chicago Town Hall.
How Can Young People Get Engaged in the Political Process?
MARION BROOKS: According to the U.S. Census Bureau, sixty-one percent of all African-Americans of voting age voted during the 2008 election, and they helped elect the very first black President of this county, Barack Obama. It’s a dramatic change from the time when blacks faced intimidation like poll taxes, literacy tests to keep them from the most basic democratic right. Civil rights leaders fought hard for that change; and in 1965, they got it when President Lyndon Johnson signed in the Voting Rights Act.
CONGRESSMAN JOHN LEWIS: [IN CLIP] They came toward us, beating us with night sticks, bullwhips, trampling us with horses, releasing the tear gas.
PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: [IN CLIP] Millions of Americans are denied the right to vote because of their color. This law will ensure them the right to vote.
CONGRESSMAN JOHN LEWIS: [IN CLIP] I came to Washington in 1961, the year that Barack Obama was born, to go on something called the Freedom Rides. And to see this unbelievable period that we are now witnessing – it’s like a nonviolent revolution.
BARACK OBAMA ON ELECTION DAY: [IN CLIP] I voted.
AFRICAN AMERICAN BOY: [IN CLIP] He was the first African American president, so if he can do it then I think that I can do it.
AFRICAN AMERICAN GIRL: [IN CLIP] He’s opening doors for me so I can challenge myself more.
OBAMA ON ELECTION NIGHT: [IN CLIP] If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible – tonight is your answer.
LESTER HOLT: And we’ll begin our final segment with Reverend Shaffer. Let me put a question to that: when you look at the blood that was shed and then you look at the power of the black vote, certainly in its last presidential election, has that right been exercised to its full potential?
PASTOR PATRICK D. SHAFFER, CITY OF FAITH CHRISTIAN CHURCH: I would dare say no, it hasn’t, because there's still much more work to be done. That the power that John Lewis and all of the rest of the freedom fighters fought for to be able to be a part of the process in America, to be heard, did not end when we cast a vote for President Barack Obama. Our world is changing, and they were fighting to be a part of a changing world and have a voice. And what our generation needs right now is to still fight to be a part of the process. And if we are satisfied by just saying, you know, we have a black president, then we abandon everything that they fought for and we’re still not free.
CLIFF KELLEY, TALK SHOW HOST, WVON-RADIO: I think one thing in answer to your question, Lester, absolutely, we are not doing what we ought to be doing. There’s no doubt about it. In fact, Americans, in general, are doing what they ought to be doing. If you look at European countries, our voting is so below. Their participation is unbelievable. But there’s a reason for that: most countries have elections on weekends. You know, why have it on a day where people go to work? You know, another thing we should have multi-party. We should have a multi-party system. If you’re not a Democrat or a Republican – and in many instances neither of them do us well – then you have a major problem trying to run as an Independent. You got to jump over all kinds of hoops and so forth to do that.
MARION BROOKS: Let’s hear from somebody in our audience, first off.
ARMONTE SMITH: Hello, my name is Armonte Smith. I’m new to voting as a black man. No candidate, even black ones, seems to speak to what important to me. How do I get them to listen? As a young black man I count too.
HERMENE HARTMAN, PUBLISHER, N’DIGO MAGAZINE: You participate. Young people are not voting. They’re not participating in the political process. In the last election here in Chicago, State of Illinois, only twenty-five percent of the populace voted. There’s a real apathy. You’ve got to participate in the process as a voter but also as running for office. And you’ve got to make demands on these politicians and you got to step forward politically. One of the greatest things I think Barack said, as he ran for office, is that “You are the one we’ve been waiting for.”
MARION BROOKS: Another question from audience?
STEVEN MITCHELL: Hello, my name is Steven Mitchell, a junior at Hales Franciscan High School. And my question is, as African-Americans we have voted in large numbers for Barack Obama to become the President of the United States of America. But as young African-Americans, we do not take the time out to vote for our local politicians. What recommendations does the panel have to engage young African-Americans to vote for elected officials on the local and state levels especially since those positions affect them the most?
LESTER HOLT: You’re saying people come out for the big game but not the smaller games.
HARTMAN: And how do you engage the young folks?
KELLEY: What you have to do is what I was mentioning earlier, and I’m so glad you brought that up. You need to get involved. You can go – Reverend Finney ran a great organization. You can go into social organizations. You can get involved in certain churches that are very progressive. Saint Sabina, with Father Pfleger. I was involved in a campaign when I was fourteen years old. But you got to do that. And please do so. All of you, get involved. And even if you find out you're with the wrong person, at least you’ll find that out. And the next time you’d be with the right one.
HARTMAN: And if you don’t like what’s out here to be involved in, create your own!
FATHER MICHAEL L. PFLEGLER, SAINT SABINA CHURCH: I think there was an illusion that electing Barack Obama was “The Change.” That’s not the change. That’s one man who happens to be African-American, walking into the White House. The change now has to happen. And so I think people put all the eggs in that basket, and that was a foolish thing to do, but there was so much energy and attention put towards that. I also think the administration and I think President Obama made a mistake when he came in and had all of this energy of young people. You didn’t keep them involved. You didn’t keep them engaged. And activism has died because the prophetic voice of the church has been brought out. And there’re no longer is a prophetic voice, because now everybody is either, “Barack is the enemy” or “leave him alone.” And there’s no one in between saying, he’s the President of the United States, and we have a right to demand of this government everything for what is deserved, for all of its people. And those in most pain deserve most energy.
MARION BROOKS: I have to say, I have to say –
REV. SHAFFER: Ma'am, can I? Please, please.
MARION BROOKS: Quickly, please.
REV. SHAFFER: I agree. And here’s the issue, is that electing President Barack Obama was a vote for a person. We were so caught up in the narrative and everything that went with it that we did not engage the policy. Now, here we are on the other side. We have a Tea Party Movement, who, they were a part of the electorate. These white people are a part of the electorate for years. It’s not about the person, it’s about the policy. When black young people aren’t engaged by policy, we finished with it. And we're just waiting for the next campaign for a new narrative and a new personality. My thing – it could've been Lil’ Wayne. It could've been Puffy or somebody. We vote for a person, not engage with the policy. And if we don’t get engaged with the policy, you have no reason to vote on a local level.
SELMA, Ala. — On the eve of the Alabama Senate election, Ted Taylor’s phone rang. Former President Barack Obama was on the other end of the line.