Youth Justice


People who don’t vote don’t count and are letting our children and our country down. As our nation’s most historic election approaches, we must think of the youngest and most vulnerable among us and make sure we vote this November. An increasing number of children in our nation are denied a fair and healthy start in life. Too many working families are coming up short at the end of each month because of sagging wages and soaring food and gas prices. There are 13.3 million poor children in America now—5.8 million of them living in extreme poverty. Between 2006 and 2007, the number of poor children increased by 500,000. Nearly nine million children have no health coverage, and well over half a million pregnant women are not covered. More than 12 million children live in households that do not always have enough food for everyone. Schools in communities across our country are failing our children, leaving four out of five low-income children unable to read or do math at grade level. The Pipeline to Prison threatens to reverse the hard earned social and economic progress of the last 50 years. Regrettably, our nation’s leaders have neglected these and other serious child and family needs.

With our votes, we must elect a new wave of statesmen and stateswomen who possess vision and compassion and will craft legislation and fight for budget priorities that will build a more level playing field for the next generation. In what will be a hard fought election, every vote—your vote—matters. Since millions of Black Americans were barred from even registering to vote in many parts of our country for so long, not voting dishonors the sacrifice and struggle of those who fought long and hard for this citizenship right.

When I moved to Mississippi in 1964 to head the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund office there, Black people in that state were denied their constitutional right to vote by procedural barriers, economic reprisal and violent intimidation. The mere process of registering to vote was daunting for Black Mississippians, many of whom were poor and at best semi-literate. They had to find transportation to travel to the county courthouse, which could be many miles away. There they would be required to take a written “literacy test” and “interpret,” to the satisfaction of a White circuit clerk, the meaning of an arcane section of the Mississippi Constitution. This was an easy way to deny the franchise to even well-educated Black professionals who were routinely declared “illiterate” and thus determined ineligible to vote.

Those who tried to register commonly had their names published in the local newspaper which would often result in their immediate dismissal by their White employers. This kind of discrimination pervaded the South—and was extremely effective. Some places like Holmes County, Mississippi, only had 20 Black registered voters in 1965 despite their majority population status.

To reinforce this systematic disenfranchisement, night riding Ku Klux Klansmen shot into the homes of Black people, bombed Black businesses and committed other acts of terror. Terror groups didn’t hesitate to commit murder. Among those who made the ultimate sacrifice to secure the right to vote included Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers and youthful Mississippi Freedom Summer voter registration volunteers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.

While those kinds of perils are hopefully behind us, other obstructions threaten to dilute Black voting strength. They range from stripping voting rights from former prisoners to election machine shenanigans. But we must not be deterred, because the stakes in this election are too high, especially for children who can’t vote. The next occupant of the White House and the new Congress will determine the makeup of the Supreme Court for a generation, as well as set budget priorities and adopt policies that will either continue to widen or close the gap between rich and poor. The survival of our children hangs in the balance. The life chances of millions of children depend on their access to affordable, comprehensive health and mental health coverage; high quality education for every child; fully funded nutrition programs; livable wages for families and income supplements such as the Earned Income and Child Tax Credits for those who need them.

If we are to secure our children’s future and honor those who sacrificed in the struggle to gain voting rights for all Americans, it is the duty of everyone to vote on November 4. But first things first. If you are not registered to vote, there’s still time. In most states, the deadline for registration is October 6 (check with your local board of elections). Then, here’s what you need to do two days before the election: Call all of your relatives and friends and remind them to vote. When you go to the polls, take some neighbors with you.

You will be taking your life—and your children’s lives—in your hands in a positive manner by walking to the polls this November 4. Your vote could make a real difference in the direction our nation takes for years to come.