The commemoration of Dr. King’s birthday forces us to reflect on the civil rights movement, its past, and our future. The movement conjures up images and stories of activists putting themselves in harm’s way in order to obtain the most basic rights in our society. We recall Dr. King, Dorothy Height, and activists marching for the desegregation of the South. We remember Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and others demanding rights for farm workers in the West. Two communities fighting for rights that would benefit all of us, often collaborating ideas, sharing methods, and gaining strength from one another. Our nation was set on fire by a movement that would forever change our lives.
Across the country, African Americans and Latinos in the civil rights movement drew strength from one another in their reliance on Gandhi’s principle of non-violence in the wake of violence against marching, protesting, and picketing activists. In 1946, Mexican Americans fought segregation in the classroom, with some success, in Mendez v. Westminster. Thurgood Marshall of the NAACP joined the appellate case and would later spearhead the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954, which paved the way for full integration in the classroom. The successes of each inspired the other to continue the fight. Said Dr. King in his famous telegram to Chavez a mere month before his murder, “as brothers in the fight for equality, I extend the hand of fellowship and good will and wish continuing success to you and your members… We are together with you in spirit and in determination that our dreams for a better tomorrow will be realized.” As we celebrate these collaborations and triumphs King spoke of, we cannot forget the obstacles we must still overcome.
Dr. King once said that voting is the foundation stone for political action. In this election year, it is more critical than ever that our work begins with that foundation – our right to vote. As communities of color, African Americans and Latinos will become a focus of national political campaigns during the election season, a stark contrast from the neglect our communities too often receive from these same politicians outside of the cycle. Focus groups and pundits will highlight the need to win our vote and politicians understand the value of garnering our votes. These same politicians also understand the impact of that electoral force if they oppose the interests of our community. In the midst of attacks on voting rights that disproportionately impact African American and Latino communities, we must ensure that our people are voting.
Today, there are more than 6 million unregistered African Americans and more than 11 million unregistered Latinos. By registering our communities to vote, we are giving them a voice which will undoubtedly highlight the disparities still faced by African Americans and Latinos in this country. We must join civil rights organizations like the NAACP, which will be registering new voters in record numbers before November. These new voices will shed light on the troubles our communities face and they will be the sound of new ideas that will move our country forward. These are the masses that will rekindle the fire for our movement.
Rebecca Lynn Guerra is the Region VII, Mid-Atlantic, Field Director for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.