On the eve of a national election, I was shocked to learn that an otherwise educated and aware acquaintance never votes. He had some convoluted argument about how Henry David Thoreau was against voting on the theory that “it only encourages them” and, “no matter who won, it wouldn’t make any difference.”

I could have started the quote game with him. I distinctly remember reading in Civil Disobedience that Thoreau said, “Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence.” I always took it to mean Thoreau was warning against just casting a vote and thinking that you’d done your bit for society. That voting is a starting place, but demanding accountability from government constantly was the next, logical and more important step.

But Thoreau was beside the point. What shocked me is that someone couldn’t be bothered to perform the absolute bare minimum of what our society asks of us. My friend is white and educated and professional, as I am. He’s probably right, no matter who wins, WE will be okay. Our taxes might go up or down. A war might rage, but we won’t be called to fight in it. We’ll go on buying iPods and laptops and watching our TV shows without too much inconvenience. Sort of the equivalent of Thoreau living in his faux woods, yet stepping out to enjoy the spirited conversation and dinner parties of his intellectual friends, protected by the militia and laws of the town whose limits he still lived in and whose maintained roads he travelled on although he refused to pay for them with his tax dollars. Nice to opt out if you can still keep all the privileges.

What I really want to talk about when someone says they can’t be bothered to vote are The Black Church Ladies.

In college, I became involved with a Democratic-backed initiative to help the elderly and those without cars get to polling stations on voting day. One of the areas that most needed those services were the slum areas around the dying mill towns that dot Massachusetts. The seasoned volunteers didn’t really want that duty, so they were more than happy to delegate it to the college students who didn’t know any better. My college friend and I were assigned to work with a predominantly Black church that needed cars and drivers to help their many elderly and poor members get to the decentralized voting places. (I’m always amazed in San Francisco that I walk in the sunshine to my neighbor’s garage and cast my vote. It wasn’t that way in Massachusetts in the 70s. Voting places were at schools in the suburbs and the weather always seemed to be harsh.)

The minister gave us a list and addresses of the “Church Sisters” who needed assistence. In these days before SatNav and Google Maps, we were lucky groups of them had chosen to gather at a few houses and at the church for their rides. It meant fewer hour-long round trips at 30MPH in the sleeting rain. The unexpected benefit was that it meant a chance to listen to these ladies talking among themselves and to us about their voting experiences.

The most amazing thing we discovered when we pulled up to our first stop, was that these ladies were dressed to the nines: church clothes and magnificent hats. This wasn’t just voting, it was a momentous occasion. Once loaded into the van, the ladies began talking about what it used to be like in the South (most were from the African American Diaspora of the 30s and 40s when many Southern Blacks fled Jim Crow Laws for what seemed like better opportunities in the factories and shipyards of the North.) Every one of the ladies knew or knew of someone who had been beaten, harassed or even killed, not just for trying to vote, but sometimes for having been seen with a vote organizer.

The next thing we discovered was that there was a tremendous pride in walking into the polling place. Some of the ladies had canes and walkers. They were happy to let us help them out of the van and negotiate the path to the polling place. But at the door, they all dropped our arms. Damn it, they were going to walk in on their own steam, heads high in magnificent hats and cast their votes under their own power. It was a matter of pride.

The choice that year included Jimmy Carter who many of these women saw as someone who would be attuned to the needs of people like them. But in the end, they were still voting for another White Man. Didn’t make a difference. They had the vote and no one was going to stop them from using it.

After each round of passengers had voted, we were instructed to drop them off at the church where a large pot-luck supper and celebration was planned. Voting day was almost like Thanksgiving Day for a whole community.

So that’s what I think of when anyone tells me they can’t be bothered to vote. I think of those wonderful Black Church Ladies who remembered when they couldn’t vote or were prevented from voting. Who knew people, even relatives, who died because they tried to vote. And after hundreds of years of disenfranchisement from the American system, still had the belief that their votes mattered.

I know the Seventies seem like ancient history to many of you. Things have changed, those scars are healed, right? Nobody, even the Black community looks on voting as such an important act.

A trip to the Civil Rights Museum put me in contact with more marvelous Church Ladies.

A trip to the Civil Rights Museum put me in contact with more marvelous Church Ladies.

I would say you were wrong. Last summer, my niece and I took a cross-country road trip. One stop took us to Memphis and the Civil Rights Museum housed in the motel where Martin Luther King was shot. We were surprised to be surrounded by at least 10 parties of family reunions. (Southern family reunions, especially among African Americans, are a wonder. They get T-shirts made and family members come from hundreds of miles away to participate in what are often three day events.) It seems in the Memphis area, a stop at the Civil Rights Museum is a must.

We surreptitiously tacked ourselves on to groups to overhear what was being said. Church Ladies very much like my Voting Church Ladies were herding grandchildren through the exhibits and adding personal commentary: “I remember when this happened. I was with your grandfather at Selma. Our neighbor was lynched.”

It took me a moment to realize that these Church Ladies were not MY Church Ladies. They were probably the daughters of those Church Ladies. Which meant the personal lessons of sufferage were thriving and being passed on actively through the generations. I’m hoping most of the little kids I saw that day will come back to Memphis when they are fifty and take their grandchildren through the exhibits, recounting tales from their elders. And I hope they’ll be telling those grandkids that they remember when the first African American President was elected. I think they will.

This is a long post to share with you the best Political Science lesson I ever learned. Those Church Ladies taught me never to take my vote for granted — even though I never had to struggle for it. For those who suffered or even died for the right of enfranchisement, you MUST cast your vote. And do it in an informed thoughtful manner. It’s the least effort that citizenship requires of you, except it may be the most important requirement.

Those Church Ladies didn’t quote Lyndon Johnson to me, but they had high regard for him. I think he may have said it best:

“The vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men.”

Image at top left from Google Images and inmagine.com