Emancipation and Enfranchisement
On January 1, 2001, a ceremony was held at Mount Vernon, the Virginia home of George Washington, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the freeing of some of his slaves. In a personalizing touch seen at the Holocaust Museum and other places where macro issues are best understood on a micro scale, a card was handed to visitors as they entered, to help them understand the life of just one of the freed slaves. Descendants of some of the slaves were there as storytellers, reminding visitors that, while Washington made an important gesture, fewer than half of the 316 slaves were actually freed. While Washington privately expressed misgivings about slavery, he chose to emancipate his slaves only after his death, in his will.
Ironically, the legacy of slavery lived on 200 years later, in an election process in November 2000 that disenfranchised many African Americans. Antiquated voting equipment, insufficient staff at polling places, arbitrary removal of names from voting rolls, harassment by law enforcement officers, and other voting problems continued the disenfranchisement that has plagued this community since the birth of our nation (See www.naacp.org for details). What all the world saw in Florida after November 7th is only part of what goes on in poor and minority communities all around the nation during every election. It is nothing short of a national disgrace that both Democrats and Republicans do not make this issue Number One on the Congressional docket later this month.
President-elect Bush has called for bipartisanship, and one way he can show his devotion to this cause is to provide leadership in reforming our nation's voting practices. "One person, one vote" is meaningless if the votes are taken on antiquated machines, if voting places are understaffed, and if voting practices do not encourage and welcome voters.
A meeting of progressive activists organized by the Independent Progressive Politics Network [www.ippn.org ] and others in Washington December 1-3 resulted in a ten-point Voters' Bill of Rights, which is a good starting place to heal the national wounds that resulted from the election's aftermath. The Ten Points are:
Rev. Martin Luther King, whose birthday we celebrate next week, once said that "There is nothing more dangerous than to build a society, with a large segment of people in that society who feel that they have no stake in it, who feel that they have nothing to lose. People who have a stake in their society protect that society, but when they don't have it, they unconsciously want to destroy it."
While Dr. King was referring only to African Americans at that time, his words resonate for many Americans of all political affiliations, who were turned off by the post-election process. For the sake of the fragile democracy we all cherish, I hope that President-elect Bush, Vice President Gore, and our other national leaders will dedicate themselves to the Voters' Bill of Rights and other legislation that will bring the franchise to all Americans 200 years after Washington's historic act of emancipation.