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Developing a Culture of Voting: Now that We Can, Can We?

Developing a Culture of Voting: Now that We Can, Can We?

Social Justice

Rev. Dr. Sharon Austin
Rev. Dr. Sharon Austin
A Letter to Young Leaders:

Nick said to his fiancée, “Come on, Mary. I’m going to show you how to vote.” That was in 1952 in New York City.

In a recent conversation, my mother confided that she voted for Dwight Eisenhower. “You’re kidding!” I exclaimed. My mother went on to say that she did not vote for her party’s candidate, Adlai Stevenson II, because Dwight Eisenhower promised to “Bring our boys home!” I should mention that my uncle and maternal granduncle were both enlisted in the Korean War at the time. In context, I could appreciate her perspective. My father, who joined the military as a teenager and needed his parents’ permission to serve in World War II, could not vote in Florida even after serving in a segregated army.

My parents, both native Floridians, met and married in New York. They could vote before their parents, who lived in Florida, could vote. As a child, I remember my parents voting, discussing candidates and their platforms, and even taking my sister and me to the polls. Families develop many cultures, one of which should be a culture of voting.

Some years later, as a young minister on staff at Ebenezer Baptist Church, I headed to Selma, Alabama to participate in the 20th anniversary of the march from
Sharon Austin - John Lewis
Top: Rev. Dr. Sharon Austin & family as a young pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church. Bottom: The late U.S. Rep. John Lewis is pictured with his wife and son. (Photos Courtesy of the Ebenezer Baptist Church Centennial Time Capsule Director, Atlanta, GA, 1986.)
Selma to Montgomery. The 1965 inaugural march was led by civil rights icons, the late Rev. and U.S. Representative John Lewis, then 25, and the late Rev. Hosea Williams, then 39. The purpose of the march was to demand an end to discrimination in voter registration (not achieved by the passage of the 15th and 19th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution). By this point, John Lewis and family were members of Ebenezer and Rev. Hosea Williams was our neighbor on staff at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), both located on Atlanta’s “Sweet Auburn” Avenue.

John Lewis returned year after year to the place where his leadership and name would become etched into the annals of history, and where he almost lost his life. I marched across that bridge with John Lewis and others 20 years later and there were still places along that 50-mile stretch to Montgomery where we marchers were met with jeers and the throwing of rocks from bystanders. That experience provided a brief glimpse into the peril of the 1965 march and maybe more into the life-threatening experience of being a black person trying to register, much less vote. Later that year, the Voting Rights Act was signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Years later, John Lewis signaled the alarm and the probably detrimental effects of the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Shelby County v. Holder. This decision significantly diminished the impact of the 1965 Act, which we are experiencing today.

I served as one of the pastors to John, his late wife Lillian, and their son John-Miles. As pastors and congregation, we knew John before he successfully ran for the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served Georgia’s 5th Congressional District from 1987 until his death in July of this year. I was always so grateful to have known him as a minister of the gospel before becoming a politician. John was a justice champion and a movement-maker, which included his advocacy of civil rights, encompassing voting rights and women's rights, and LGBTQ rights. Through this church and in this season, the legacy of Drs. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Sr.  continue. The current senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, Dr. Raphael Warnock, is currently a candidate for the U.S. Senate in tomorrow's election.

This past week, I had the opportunity to work with the Rev. Clarke Campbell-Evans on a project that he and his team spearheaded, in his capacity as staff liaison for the Public Policy and Witness Team of the Bishop’s Task Force on Anti-racism. Bishop Carter and African Methodist Episcopal Church Bishop Adam Richardson in collaboration with Faith in Public life, have placed full-page ads to run in the Sunday newspapers in some of our largest cities: Jacksonville, Gainesville and Tallahassee last Sunday and the Miami Herald this past Sunday. In a clarifying moment, I wondered about the possibility of being able to run an ad in the Tampa Bay Times, and thus impacting not only Tampa, but communities along the I-4 corridor. My friend and colleague, Rev. Vicki Walker, minister of Missions and Outreach at Hyde Park UMC in Tampa, is someone who is always “all-in” on the work of justice and served as a thought partner. In forty minutes, we made a decision to make a difference and confirmed the ad for this past Sunday’s Tampa Bay Times.

Admittedly, I have a passion for regular, informed voting, to which my husband Mike can attest.  We have developed a culture of voting in our family to which our four young adult children can also testify. Leaders of my generation are closer to the end of this work than the beginning. The right to vote was a hard-won fight for which some gave their lives.

My parents, later me, John Lewis, Hosea Williams, Clarke Campbell-Evans, Vickie Walker and the bishops, all began this work in our twenties and thirties and we’re still on the journey. Therefore, young leaders, I lay the urgency of this cause before you, and challenge you with the oft-quoted words, possibly ascribed to the first-century Jewish scholar Hillel the Elder, "If not you, then who? If not now, then when?"

~ Rev. Dr. Sharon Austin is the Director of Connectional and Justice Ministries at the Florida Conference. She serves on the Bishop's Task Force on Anti-racism and as the Secretary of the General Board of Church and Society.

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