Last month in Mississippi, African-Americans voted their choice in the Republican primary election. Some pundits see it as a strategic move to select the lesser of two evils, resulting in mainstream incumbent Thad Cochran fending off Tea Party challenger Chris McDaniel.
That interpretation is the default view of the pundit class, but those who accept it are missing the point: The African-American vote was actually a demonstration of voting power that recalls the Freedom Summer of 1964.
Despite the promise of equality at the American founding, African-Americans had been relegated to second-class citizenship and restricted from voting even long after emancipation. One response was to launch a campaign of peaceful civil disobedience to gain full inclusion in American society, with all the attendant rights and responsibilities.
The Freedom Summer of 1964, also known as the Mississippi Summer Project, manifested itself in a local movement that took on national and international significance. Blacks and Whites worked together and sacrificed their safety and careers to ensure that all Americans had equal rights under the law.
Change was in the air, and nowhere was this more evident than in African-Americans demanding their unrestricted right to vote and enjoy the benefits of American citizenship that is our birthright. Success came in the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
African-Americans were free at last to cast their vote for the type of nation and government they wanted. Men and women of courage marchedand in some cases diedfor the right of African-Americans to swim in the mainstream of American culture, business, economics, politics and international affairs.
But 50 years later, voter apathy is at an all-time high and trust in government is running at an all-time low. In these conditions, African-Americans choose to cast votes in a Republican race. The significance, unfortunately, is lost on many young African-Americans.
Many invoke the name of Martin Luther King once a year but know little to nothing about the fight for civil rights. Many would be hard-pressed to identify those who made great sacrifices on their behalf.
Despite the great victory for civil rights, many see themselves as hopeless victims, powerless to influence their fate. Far too many Gen Xers and Millennial African-Americans embrace a culture of violence and alienation. That pathology promotes a kind of self-imposed second-class citizenship, a stark contrast to the Freedom Riders who saw the glass as half full and pursued a course of action that resulted in opportunity and upward mobility.
In 2014, the economy is still sluggish, and many Americans, black and white, are still without jobs. On the other hand, election season is here and all Americans will soon have the opportunity to assess their candidates on a variety of issues.
These range from threats to citizens privacy and personal liberties to conditions for enterprise and business creation. Voters are also likely to seek candidates views on a government that is responsible, transparent and accountable to the people.
This summer, Americans remember that the right to vote was won at great cost, and rightly celebrate the victory. But the right to vote is useless unless voters choose to exercise it.
African-Americans in Mississippi just did that, in a Republican primary run-off no less. And it was they who determined the outcome. That kind of clout should put all politicians on notice that, as in the Freedom Summer of 1964, change is again in the wind.
|Robert L. Morris, Jr., is a Policy Fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif.|