I was a sophomore in high school, and I remember the day so clearly:
I had just walked in the house from track practice, and I could hear my mother’s voice from her bedroom on the phone, talking in rushed, whispered tones. I could tell it was something important.
*Click* She hung up and came walking into the living room: “That was Big Momma,” she said, and then paused…
Oh no, I thought, bracing for the worst. Big Momma was my mother’s grandmother and my great-grandmother. Was Bud, my great-grandfather, okay? Both were well into their 70s and still lived in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the place where they grew up. “What happened?” I asked.
“She called to say,” answered my mother slowly, “‘Sista (my mother’s family nickname), they filmin’ a movie about ‘dem boys.’” Then, she looked away like she was watching a movie that only she could see.
What is she talking about, I thought? Who are “dem boys?”
That is when she told me the story of three young men named Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner. In the summer of 1964, also known as “Freedom Summer,” these three brave young boys, as members of The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), traveled to Jessup County Mississippi to encourage Black residents to vote. At the time, there had been a rash of lynchings, church burnings and other forms of terrorism across parts of the rural American South where the Ku Klux Klan was engaging in violent means of voter suppression.
Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner had come to Mississippi where the violence was the worst. Only a few days after their arrival, while driving around, the three men were pulled over, arrested, jailed and told to leave immediately. But on their way out of town, they suddenly disappeared. Their bodies were discovered two months later, floating in a dam outside of Philadelphia, Mississippi. All of them had been shot at close range with bullet holes to their heads.
My mother went on to explain that my great grandparents’ church, Mt. Zion, was one of several churches that was raided and burned to the ground that summer… that my great grandfather, Bud, had been beaten during that raid and was left partially paralyzed… that Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner were in Philadelphia around that time to check things out… that one of the boys stayed with Big Momma and Bud while they were in town, because no hotels would take them in… that outrage over their disappearance led to an extensive FBI investigation and helped gain passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and now, 22 years later, they were interviewing my great grandparents and other residents about the incident.
I thought: You mean to tell me, this entire time my great-grandfather Bud walked with a walker not because he was old, but because he was paralyzed from being beaten?
I could feel my face flush hot with anger. I was angry that my mom had kept this a secret and never told me any of this until that day; I was angry all over again that following year when the movie, “Mississippi Burning,” finally came out.
And I was angry the next time I visited my great-grandparents at just how not angry they were: “We don’t need to talk about that stuff right now,” Big Momma told me when I pressed her for more details. “We get along just fine with the white folk here. Just make sure you vote.”
The college years were a frustrating blur during which I was bursting with ideas and energy and with no place to put them except for into campus organizing around social justice. But the one area where I felt some assemblance of power was with my vote. So every petition I agreed with, I signed. Every protest I believed in, I joined. Every charity I like, I donated. And at every referendum, I voted.
It’s a myth that Black people do not vote.
Following the Voting Rights Act in 1964, nearly 60 percent of registered Black voters went to the polls, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
That number would drop and not rise again until President Obama’s first election in 2008, when 60.8 percent of Black people voted. And then again in 2012, when 62 percent turned out for Obama’s re-election, higher than the percentage of the white electorate when compared to population!
This Tuesday, November 6, it is important that everyone go out and vote like it’s a general election! This midterm election may be the most important referendum on America’s true values we’ve seen this century.
If the current state of our union angers or frustrates you, the most powerful way to voice your concern is through your vote.
If you care about the future of racial and civil rights, vote!
If you care about the future of religious or First Amendment freedoms, vote!
If you care about the future of women and LGBT rights, vote!
If you care about the future of healthcare, vote!
If you care about the future of climate change, vote!
If you care about the future of civility, transparency and God’s honest truth, vote!
If you care about Goodman, Chaney, Schwerner, Rice, Martin, Brown, Sterling, Castille, Gurley, Gray, Garner, Scott and the thousands more innocent men and women who, throughout history, have prematurely lost their lives because of racism — then please, on Tuesday, November 6, get up early, and go vote!
Your voice matters. Your vote matters.
At the very least, the lives of all ‘dem boys matter.