On Our Ancestors

Every Election Year

As the 2020 Presidential Election sways on, we have the possibility of a new President of the United States. Or the current one that will use the injustice system of the United States to remain in office. (Thanks, checks, and balances). Every two to four years, as a black person, I’ve been told by white liberals, social media influences, political pundits, and many of fellow black people will say thing over and over again. “Our ancestors died for the right to vote!”

It’s a great way to vote shame folks to the polls for candidates at the local, state, and federal levels that speak platitudes to black voters but offer no true path or policy to economic and racial justice. Black people, in particular, black women, will be held on a pedestal as the voters who saved American Democracy yet again in 2020. But after the election cycle dies down, many black folks will still be subject to racial violence at the hands of police and racist vigilantes. They’ll still have poor schools, higher unemployment, lack of adequate healthcare, and stable housing. Every election politicians at all levels sale us dreams but for many black people their material conditions rarely get better even in the era of a black president.

I do believe that black people should partake in the experiment of U.S. Democracy. Still, the ideal of the vote being the end all be all is dishonest at best and lying at worse. The point of the matter is our ancestors are like people who live today. Some were cowards, others sellouts. Some held their heads down and want didn’t rock the boat. Some just wanted to live their lives and take care of their families. Others were organizers in their communities; a small number of black folks were revolutionaries who fought for black liberation in the United States.

Human Rights

History shows time and time again that black Americans fought for justice and human rights in this nation. After the Civil War, black folks (Well, black men) gained the right to vote. The Reconstruction Era saw a new black political class rise to political prominence only a few short years removed from American Slavery. As Reconstruction waned and the North and South struck a deal to remove Union troops from the former Confederacy. Black codes were established to bar blacks from voting in the South. Those codes would evolve into Jim Crow Laws that created a world of black and white. Jim Crow reinforced the unequal racial caste system in the South. At the same time, the unofficial Jim Crow laws in the North upheld the racial hierarchy.

During the official and unofficial segregation across the United States, black people continued to fight back. It was far beyond the right to vote. They fought for human dignity in a world that was built on anti-blackness. At the turn of the 20th century, Ida B. Wells become an anti-lynching advocate and a champion of women’s rights.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett traveled internationally, shedding light on lynching to foreign audiences. Abroad, she openly confronted white women in the suffrage movement who ignored lynching. Because of her stance, she was often ridiculed and ostracized by women’s suffrage organizations.

Ida B. Wells, investigative journalism into black people being lynched in the South, forced her to flee the North. She continued her pursuit of justice and highlighting the racial terrorism faced by black people until she died in Chicago in 1931. Thirty plus years after Ida. B. Wells’s death. Thanks to the work of countless Civil Rights activist and movement leaders. Lyndon Johnson was pushed into glory for signing the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1965 into law. The Civil Rights era wasn’t just about black people in the South getting the right to vote. It was a struggle for black liberation and human dignity. Even after the passage of that historic legislation in 1965, MLK was assassinated in 1968. He died while he was working with a labor organizers in Memphis during sanitation workers strike because King and others realized economic justice was just as important as the right to vote and ending the evils of Jim Crow.

In the North, from the 1950s through the 1970s. We saw the rise of people like Malcolm X, who saw racial uplift and black pride as means to black liberation. The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense formed in Oakland, CA, in 1966. Its goal was to combat police violence plaguing black urban centers for decades. It grew into a national and international movement thanks to the rise of the Black Power, coined by Stokely Carmichael in the early 60s in Mississippi. Many black people in the North faced both social and economic injustice. These movements and leaders were all about black liberation, pride, and justice. Voting was one path towards liberation. Not the sole path.

The Struggle Continues

In 2020, we saw the summer Black Lives Matter uprisings after the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Decades later, police brutality still lingers. The racial wealth gap still keeps a critical mass of black people economically disenfranchise. The ongoing COVID pandemic has exposed the racial inequities that still exist today in health and healthcare access. Environmental racism still harms poor and low-income black communities to this day. Even decades after gaining full voting rights as black people attacks on voting rights persist. The struggle for black liberation goes well beyond just the right to vote. This article only scratches the surface of the countless famous and unknown black people that fought for our liberation. To this day, we still fight. Complete liberation and justice have been the goal of black people since the first African slaves were brought in bondage to the shores of Jamestown, Virginia in 1622. Dr. King stated this when he suggested that the United States needed a revolution of values:

 “I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values…For years, I labored with the idea of reforming the existing institutions of the South, a little change here, a little change there. Now I feel quite differently. I think you’ve got to have a radical reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values.”

The struggle for justice has been far beyond our ancestor’s dying for the right to vote. They died and bleed for the right to exist as full human beings in this world. So I hope these folks keep this same energy around uplifting black people well after the election cycle ends. Because we still need a revolution of values!

Between 200,000 and 500,000 demonstrators march down Constituition Avenue during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Washington DC, August 28, 1963. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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