This article was originally published on Medium.com in partnership with America Votes.
As a millennial black woman, growing up in third-generation poverty in Detroit, MI, I was exposed to many family members–my grandma, grandfather, aunts, and uncles– whom witnessed first-hand the long fight for civil rights and liberties. I recently sat down with a few of them to ask about their upbringing during the Jim Crow Era to see if they feel like America has truly progressed for Black communities and if we would one day achieve social equality.
Our conversations focused on their childhood, racism, and the systematic suppression that deprived Black Americans of the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness promised to us for nearly 400 years. Today, my community’s civil rights are still violated with police brutality, pay gaps, and most importantly, voter suppression. Voting has always been at the core of American society because its one of the ways we make our voices heard.
My grandmother Merlin Hutson was born in 1948 in Eudora, AR but moved to Inkster, MI when she was four-years-old because of the unlivable conditions that transpired in the south, including forced segregation and lynching. While I was speaking to my grandmother and Aunt Rose Phelps, who both share the same mother and father, I quickly learned about the miseducation and lack of resources that were purposely withheld from them and others in the Black community during that time. My aunt shared that while her family lived in the north, where things were supposed to be better, she remembers feeling separated and unequal to her white classmates. She talked about a time when she befriended a white girl and had a sleepover but was told not to tell others in their class. “We had to keep it a secret,” my Aunt Rose stated.
As a child, my grandmother frequently attended church with her late father, Ivory Burks Sr. She remembers the congregation being misled by the church’s leadership to stay silent on civil rights issues and being discouraged to vote. This was one of the many reasons my grandmother waited so long in her life to vote.
I was shocked that my grandmother and aunt, who lived in Michigan for most of their youth, were never taught the importance of their newfound right to vote. When my Aunt Rose reflected on casting her first vote in 1974 at age 18, she remembers never feeling encouraged to vote. My grandmother remembers her first time visiting the polls in 1980 at the age of 32 saying, “I felt proud and like an adult.”
Life in the South was very different and ironically, more progressive for my family. My uncles LeRoy Holmes and Eddie Phelps remembered the atmosphere being filled with Black pride and awareness to make a difference and fight for equality. My uncle Eddie was born in Macon, GA. Even though he was exposed to whites-only signs plastered throughout the city, he remembers living in a close-knitted community where many people from his neighborhood grew up being involved in the Civil Rights movement. Both my uncles, Eddie and LeRoy, remember being told about the importance of voting but they were also familiar with the obstacles Black Americans face to vote in elections.
My family all described the lack of resources at polling places, inaccessible voting locations, and the scarcity of Black candidates running for elected office. The motivation to vote wasn’t deeply instilled into the Black community, and to my surprise, the historic 1965 Voting Rights Act and the reforms it brought weren’t broadcasted enough in Black communities. In high school, I was taught about the fierce activism that resulted in the passage of the Voting Rights Act and was led to believe that Black people in the late 60's and 70's understood the seriousness of voting, but that clearly was not the case for my family.
Even with the progress made since 1965, Black communities today are still experiencing voter suppression. Inherited institutions like the gerrymandering and newer tools of oppression like unnecessary voter ID laws still contribute to Black voter suppression. In June, Black voters in Georgia waited up to eight hours to exercise their rights, on top of the harsh laws that forbid felons to vote — which in turn, also revokes the right to vote from millions of Black Americans nationwide that are disproportionately convicted.
Since 1619, Black Americans in this country have been physically and mentally abused by racism, discrimination, and systematic oppression. Similar to my upbringing, 46 years after my grandmother was born, I was raised in post-Jim Crow Detroit — where the city showed minimal progression with deteriorating housing, insufficient K-12 education, and being excessively policed in our neighborhoods. I witnessed things that my ancestors fought hard to dismantle for nearly 400 years. Unlike those ancestors, I have the right to vote, but I still face adversities when I exercise my right.
It’s time for a 21st-century voting rights act that will protect the Black community because we cannot say that America is progressing when my people are still suppressed. Our vote is our voice. Voting has always been viewed in Black communities as a privilege since it took centuries for our communities to achieve that victory. It’s how we ensure that we have representation that will advocate for our rights in our local, state, and federal government, and we have a RIGHT to be heard.