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The Leavenworth Times - Leavenworth, KS
  • LV Times columnist: Freedom Summer is a civics lesson for Leavenworth

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  • In the summer of 1964, a coalition of civil rights groups launched a major campaign in Mississippi to register black people to vote.
    At that time, only about 6 percent of Mississippi’s black citizens were registered to vote — there were no black members of the state legislature. The campaign, unfortunately, had only limited success in increasing black registration, but nonetheless it was a key event in the struggle for civil rights in America.
    Three young civil rights workers — James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner — were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in the course of this Freedom Summer.
    The courage of these three young men helped inspire President Lyndon Johnson to introduce the Voting Rights Act of 1965; this act greatly expanded the number of blacks registered to vote in Mississippi. For a fictional but historically accurate account of this Freedom Summer, check out the episode “Wednesday’s Women” from the TV show “Cold Case” — this episode stars the most lovely and talented Ms. Alexandra Lydon as a young woman who goes to Mississippi that summer to work on the civil rights campaign.
    In my political science classes, I often tell students about this important episode in the struggle for civil rights, and one time when I was talking about it there was a most interesting event.
    After describing the sacrifices people had made in this summer to ensure that all could vote, I asked the students how many of them were registered to vote. 
    About two-thirds of them were, but one young black man said he was not registered because he saw no point to voting. There were three young black women in this class, and they told this young man in the strongest possible terms that he should be thoroughly ashamed of himself for saying things like that.
    One of these young women said, “A lot of black people died so you could get the vote, and now you will not take 15 minutes to go by the courthouse to register to vote.” The very next class one of these women brought by a voter registration form and would not leave until the young man filled it out and promised to take it by the courthouse.
    These stories have relevance to a lot of the recent elections here in Leavenworth.
    In our city commission and school board elections in April 2013, we had just a 7 percent turnout. That was a quite low turnout, but it was not much different from most of our local elections where we are lucky if we get 14 percent turnout.
    The fact is, we Americans take voting for granted and so we are much too lax in exercising this fundamental democratic right. We allow ourselves to not vote by making excuses like “it will take too long,” or “the weather is bad today.” 
    Page 2 of 2 - When I hear my fellow citizens make excuses like that, I think of a foreign election I was indirectly involved in. From 1987-1994, I worked as an unpaid consultant to some of the groups and individuals working to end apartheid in South Africa and make that country a multi-racial democracy.
    Our efforts to end apartheid paid off in 1994, when South Africa had its first election in which all races could vote — the people elected Nelson Mandella as their president.
    That election was on a hot summer day and since this was the first time all people could vote, there were delays of up to four hours in voting, but people gladly waited in line because for most of them this was the first time in their lives they could vote. In that election, some 80 percent of the eligible voters turned out and voted.
    The voters of Leavenworth could profit by following the example of these voters in South Africa.
    Dr. Ernest Evans is a political science professor at Kansas City Kansas Community College-Leavenworth Center and a regular guest lecturer at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth. He is a Leavenworth resident.

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