How do you know when you’re on the right side of history? Is progress a choice or is it destiny? Did the hundreds of marchers led by 25-year-old John Lewis across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma know that they were marching toward history? When Fannie Lou Hamer was born in 1917 as the 20th child to sharecroppers Lou Ella and James Townsend, how could they know she would change our democracy? The right side of history is an elusive and inevitable challenge we must all embrace.
In 1865, Frederick Douglass said, “Slavery is not abolished until the Black man has the ballot.” More than half a century later, the 19th Amendment would grant mostly white women the right to vote. Many thought they were on the right side of history. However, in the South, Black women and many Black men would largely remain disenfranchised. Poll taxes, grandfather clauses, literacy tests, violence, and racial terror lynchings created significant barriers.
It would take yet another half century for these racist voting tactics to be prohibited in the 24th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, respectively. Many believed after these hardfought gains through the Civil Rights Movement, that they were on the right side of history.
We’ve all heard the message. Seen it tweeted, posted, and tagged. Watched celebrities and loved ones urge us to do it. Vote. The unequivocal sense is that this election year is a vital one and every vote counts. But what happens after you vote? What do we need to do to ensure the change we want to see? Progress does not end with your vote. Become active in city council meetings, know the local issues that directly impact your community, keep demanding that your elected officials truly represent your needs. Vote and then show up with the same enthusiasm and determination, regardless of the outcome.
And when you vote, remember those who fought for revolutionary change and the liberation for us all. Remember those who were beaten and who perished because their oppressors knew Black people who vote are empowered. Right now, we need a country of empowered people who will continue to march toward change.
Remember John Lewis, Diane Nash, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Harriet Tubman, John Brown, JoAnne Bland, Bernard Lafayette, and the countless others. When you vote, when you act, know that these are the moments when history is written and you are a part of it. Which side are you on?