“Life is a hard battle anyway. If we laugh and sing a little as we fight the good fight of freedom, it makes it all go easier. I will not allow my life’s light to be determined by the darkness around me.”—Sojourner Truth, a human rights activist and Methodist preacher in the 19th century
John Wesley believed in the power of voting. On October 6, 1774, he wrote, “I met those of our society who had votes in the ensuing election and advised them to vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worthy; to speak no evil of the person they voted against, and to take care their spirits were not sharpened against those that voted on the other side.”
Nearly 200 years later the United Methodist Social Principles were first adopted by the 1972 General Conference. Paragraph 164.B states, “The strength of a political system depends upon the full and willing participation of its citizens. The church should continually exert a strong ethical influence upon the state, supporting policies and programs deemed to be just and opposing policies and programs that are unjust.”
2020 is not only a presidential election; it is also the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which on paper granted all American women the right to vote. It ended the fight for thousands of white women, but for Black women and other women of color the outcome was less clear.
August 18, 1920 was a momentous day, a day when women like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton dressed in long dresses and festive hats marched the streets waving the American flags to celebrate their victory. It was supposed to solidify the 15th Amendment in 1870, which prohibited the government from denying anyone the right to vote based on their “race, color, or previous condition of servitude” but was often not enforced.
But shrouded in their celebration were the many women of color who had been shoulder to shoulder with their white counterparts to fight for these rights or had instituted their own groups of Black suffragists.
Instead of relishing the victory and embracing the new freedom, many women of color would still face obstacles to voting booths and deprived them of a voice in local and federal elections for at least another 45 years.
Following the passage of the 19th Amendment, a New York Times editorial wrote, “millions of other women — particularly African-Americans in the Jim Crow South — remained shut out of the polls for decades,” including many Native American and Asian American women who were not granted citizenship.
Amy Jones, an ordained deacon since 2010, an adjunct faculty member at Wesley Theological Seminary and manager of volunteer engagement for Family Promise, said, “While white women could vote, people of color were still not considered human.”
Obstacles like poll taxes, required literacy tests, violence and other measures of subjugation prevented many from exercising their right. Poll taxes were not eliminated until 1964 when the 24th Amendment was ratified, and Methodist suffragists like Dorothy Height embraced the “love your neighbor” teachings by raising money to pay poll taxes, offering special classes for the literacy tests and helping to organize voter registration in the South, voter education in the North and scholarship programs for student civil rights workers.
The following year the seminal Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed. This Act driven by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson outlawed literacy tests and other barriers to voting. In 1971 the 26th Amendment was ratified, guaranteeing the right to vote to adult citizens 18 years of age or older.
In 1975 the federal government passed voting rights amendments that prohibited discrimination against “language minority” citizens, which included Native Americans.
Jones added that part of the problem was the segregated school system, which disenfranchised people in how they were able to vote.
“Education is the solution,” said Jones. “We have so much to learn about racism and working for justice, but part of the solution is getting out of the way and being aware of all the privilege we have. We can’t change the past, but we can start to change the future.”
GNJ churches are doing their part
As Election Day nears, some GNJ churches are doing their part to ensure more voting privileges by assisting in voter registrations.
Donny Reyes, a 17-year-old Bridgeton resident and member of St. John UMC who helps distribute food to the town’s Mexican community, said, “With the COVID-19 pandemic changing all aspects of our lives, voting is no exception. In order to stay safe while performing one’s civic duty registering to vote is more important than ever before. While helping at the food distribution, I realized that there was an untapped opportunity in front of us. Helping register members of our community to vote will leave a lasting impact based on their hopes, values and faith. Registering members of the community to vote during food distribution is a great way to ensure that our democratic system succeeds.”
The voice of this youth was heard. Donny is part of an experimental education cohort where 50 youth are attending college and high school at the same time. He will graduate at 17 with a high school diploma and an associate degree. He dreams of attending an Ivy League school. Concurrently, he takes care of his 12-year-old brother while his mother works.
“When our youth asked about doing voter registration at the Food Giveaway, it was an easy ask,“ said Cynthia Mosely, the coordinator of the Food Giveaway as well as the chair of the staff parish relationship committee and an Annual Conference delegate. She is also active on the Committee on Native American Ministries (CoNAM) and serves on the jurisdictional CoNAM, which reaches the other four Native American United Methodist Churches in the Northeast.
“Donny found St. John UMC on the computer when his uncle was hungry and disabled. We met him in his neighborhood and from then on, we have become partners,” said Mosely.
“We obtained the postage paid self-mailer form last month, made a bunch of copies and we ask everyone if they are registered,” said Mosely who added that she and others at St. John also take registrations to the post office.
“Interestingly, most of our takers are young people. Older people say they are registered, but then we remind them their registration can lapse if they do not vote. We have a few more weeks to get them registered,” said Mosely who added that they are also registering 17-year-olds, as permitted, in case their birthdays fall before the election.
Another youth from Bridgeton named Michaela Thomas said, “Especially during a time where everything is entirely too hazy and unclear to define what it means to vote at all! However, it is still one of the only tools we have in a Democracy to be able to have a say about how our lives go in society. Voting has the power to change these realities when everyone is educated to choose and choose wisely about who is passing the laws and regulations around the causes that matter.”
A big push to register more voters is also taking place in Trenton where unemployment, health disparity and food insecurity have also been magnified by the pandemic.
Rev. Rupert Hall of Turning Point UMC said that the church’s food pantry volunteers are addressing the captive audience they have at their food pantry every Saturday morning by encouraging attendees to register to cast a ballot.
“Making our voices heard has never been more important,” said Hall. “Casting a ballot is one of the best ways to do that, so if we can make that opportunity possible for the people in our community, many of whom are among the marginalized and unforgotten, we are going to do our best.”
The right to vote is a staple of the United States’ democracy and is the right that ensures every person has a voice in how the government acts. Although Sojourner Truth died before she was able to see women have the right to vote, her legacy still lives in the Methodist women and their descendants who followed in her footsteps. In 2020, women are showing up to vote in record numbers as the November election nears and more women, particularly women of color, register to vote.
The League of Women Voters provides information about the election process, new voting options, polling place locations and hours, candidates, absentee ballot and early voting options, registration deadlines and requirements. Resources for those local churches looking to get involved can be found on the website, https://www.lwvnj.org/ and on its webinar, “Voter Engagement in a Pandemic.”
In the words of the late Congressman John Lewis, “Your vote is precious, almost sacred. It is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have to create a more perfect union.”