When we were growing up in South Los Angeles, my siblings and I often heard my dad’s impromptu sermons about matters of importance: the value of education, the perils of purchasing on credit, the virtue of hard work, and the dire necessity of voting.
“People died so we could vote,” he’d say.
As a very young kid, I imagined the dying as a scene from a Western movie: good guys vs. bad guys, and bodies strewn across a grassy battlefield. In the end the good guys walked away, alive and free to vote. My imaginary battle scene was historically inaccurate, but I came to learn the element of peril was real. And we weren’t talking about faraway countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, but the U.S., in the not very distant past.
I came to learn how perilous it had been for black people to vote in the South, especially in the era prior to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. People of color didn’t return from the polls wearing a splashy red, white, and blue “I voted” sticker the way we might now. People of color often weren’t allowed to vote, and if they persisted, and tried organizing others to exercise their rights as Americans, their efforts often got them beaten, sometimes killed.
Hence my dad’s “you gotta vote” speeches. At the core of my dad’s fidelity to the ballot was an appreciation for the sacrifices made by everyday people that allowed African-Americans—and other people of color—to obtain it.
In the 1950s, when my parents were kids, the NAACP began an effort to register voters in the small rural Louisiana town where they lived. Local African-American residents, like my mother’s father and the father of her friend Curtis Spears, Jr., became members and participated in the effort.
One day Curtis’ father returned from town beaten and bloodied. The assault had come at the hands of the town marshal, who later explained it as a case of “mistaken identity.” Not long afterward, the loan on the family’s farm was recalled by the local lending institution. The family was forced to become sharecroppers—a plummet in status and fortune—all because of their desire to vote.
My mother remembers her mother and others memorizing the Preamble to the Constitution and various historical facts before heading to the polls to face questions from a poll worker. But preparation didn’t always help, my dad added.
“They’d ask you: ‘How many bubbles in a bar of soap?’” he said.
Any answer was wrong if the poll worker wanted it to be, and the bid to vote ended there. Today my parents are avid voters, going to the polls for races that feature only city councilmembers and candidates for sheriff, in addition to the ones for president. They vote with a sense of duty and commitment that might be hard for non-voters to understand.
History explains it.
Our democracy demanded a double portion of faith from older African-Americans. It required them to believe in the rights accorded to citizens of this nation, even as the nation denied these same rights to people of color. It required them to march, sit-in, stand up, face police dogs and water hoses until America was forced to do as Martin Luther King, Jr. said: “Rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”
The true price of the ballot was reinforced many years later, in the mid-1990s, when I met my friend Frank Godden.
At his home near the University of Southern California, where he was mostly housebound and later blind, Frank, then in his 80s, loved talking about all he’d witnessed through nearly the entire 20th century. He had the longest political memory of anyone I’d ever met. He was a World War II veteran, a graduate of the Tuskegee Institute, and a businessman who’d helped develop a resort community in northern Los Angeles County open to African-Americans during segregation when other places of recreation were closed to them.
As a small boy growing up in Live Oak, Florida, he remembered his father telling him: “When you finish school, I want you to leave Live Oak, leave the South. You spend too much time trying to be accepted as a citizen.”
The admonition to leave the South baffled him. Frank had eight brothers and sisters, a dog named Scout, a horse named Fannie, and plenty of friends. Life was good, as far as he could see—until the issue of black people voting arose in the early 1920s.
The voting efforts in Live Oak were part of a larger campaign by African-Americans in Florida to use the ballot as a means of defeating Jim Crow laws that segregated nearly every part of Southern life, I later learned by reading Emancipation Betrayed: The Hidden History of Black Organizing and White Violence in Florida from Reconstruction to the Bloody Election of 1920. This was a time when black men were beaten, black women arrested, and white supporters threatened—all to thwart black voting.
In Live Oak, the town’s black leaders decided to run a candidate for office. They gathered on the porch of the Godden home one Sunday and nominated Frank’s father to run for postmaster. The family was well-known in the Live Oak community—Frank’s father was a livestock farmer and a minister, and his mother was a principal at the town’s colored elementary school and a music teacher.
Reverend Godden was elected and, the way Frank remembered it, that vote on the porch was the beginning of the end.
Frank’s father received threats, including a letter that he carried in his wallet. Then one night a carload full of men drove to the Godden house. A man jumped out and lobbed a firebomb that landed on the porch of the home and exploded, leaving a crater that extended into the living room of the home.
Anxious about the possibility of violence, Frank’s parents had sent the children to their grandparents’ house for the evening. So thankfully, nobody was hurt.
As a very old man, Frank still remembered the fear his 11-year-old self felt upon returning home and staring into the hole left by the bomb. That day, the family packed up their lives and left Live Oak forever, on a train headed to New Orleans.
“We couldn’t let anybody know we were leaving,” Frank recalled. “We couldn’t even say goodbye to our friends.”
To be American is to appreciate and acknowledge those who died so we could vote, who faced bombs and beatings, and lost farms—and voted anyway. They are owed a debt, payable in the currency of participation in the democratic process.
When I turned 18, my father walked with me, a newly minted voter, to the polling place at the school down the street from our house. My first vote was important enough that he felt he had to share it with me. Like my parents, I now consider myself a regular voter. This is not to say that I never miss; I have. But I believe, like they do, that my vote matters.
I’ve heard my father’s words flowing from my mouth when I talk to younger people about voting: people died so we could vote. Now they are my words. Now I understand the battlefield and the soldiers.
In 2000, I traveled to Greenwood, Mississippi, with Endesha Ida Mae Holland, a foot soldier in the civil rights movement who had just published a memoir about her life in the Mississippi Delta. She had received an invitation to speak at a literary conference at the University of Mississippi at Oxford (better known by its nickname Ole Miss). This was a place black people could only dream of attending when she was growing up. I accompanied Holland, who had since become a college professor and Pulitzer Prize-nominated playwright, to write a Los Angeles Times Magazine profile.
She showed me where she’d once seen the battered body of Emmett Till, an African-American teen who had been killed for reportedly flirting with a white woman, and where she had marched. She showed me where the house she grew up used to be. It had been firebombed because she joined civil rights workers in registering people to vote. Holland’s mother had been afraid that her daughter was stirring up trouble and was opposed to her civil rights activity; she didn’t want to vote. When the house was bombed, Holland’s disabled mother was seriously injured. In our conversations, Holland told me how, at the hospital, not long before she died, her mother whispered to her: “Tote me to vote, gal.”
Voting stories have been to me like family heirlooms; they make it impossible for me to take voting lightly. For Frank, the bombing robbed him of the world as he knew it. It might have stripped him too of his faith in democracy. Instead, Frank became fervent about voting, community involvement, collective action—from the neighborhood block club, to the college alumni association, to his political party. He remained a believer in the democratic process. He followed politics like others follow sports.
In 2008, at the age of 97, Frank did something his parents never did: He cast a vote for an African-American to hold the nation’s highest office, then he witnessed Barack Obama’s election. Listening to the inauguration, Frank cried tears that carried the weight of generations.
Jocelyn Y. Stewart is a journalist and screenwriter based in Los Angeles.
Primary Editor: Jia-Rui Cook. Secondary Editor: Andrés Martinez.
Lead photo courtesy of Theresa Thompson. Interior photo by Anne Fishbein.