Our 2020 vote and protests restored the soul and direction of America

Keith Simmonds

For African Americans, February is always an appropriate time to pause and reflect on where we have been, where we are and the distance yet to travel. Moving forward and upward is a continual struggle, but the African American community, and by extension the nation, is moving onward, nonetheless.  In spite of the many historical twists and turns, the African American community is stronger than ever, and, thanks to the progressive forces throughout the land we as a people are perched to become better than ever as a community.

Our souls have been tested since the days of slavery; lynched through the decades following slavery and Reconstruction; we have been forcibly separated into “colored only” segments of this country at restaurants, schools, churches, sports, just to name a few venues. And after overcoming the worst of all these dreadful actions African Americans can still say, “It is well, it is well with my soul!”

It is difficult to find another group of people who have gone through so much and for so long than African Americans and yet after every knock down, we rebound each time and just keep moving on. As an educator, I could never get over the thought that policy leaders during and after slavery did their best to deny African Americans the right to learn to read. And when that didn’t succeed as planned, they tried denying us the right to vote.

Progressive voices, such as Frederick Douglass, Marcus Garvey, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, Rev. C.K. Steele of Tallahassee, Florida (and so many others) rose up and spoke loudly, forcing legislators to change or mitigate the obnoxious elements of the American political system. We can go as far back as the 1860s when congressional statutes and constitutional amendments were passed to lift or rid America of its original sin of racial inequality. 

The most recent of the string of legislation intended to make this country live up to its ideals have been the respective 1964 and 1965 Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts. African Americans took advantage of these land mark legislative acts by voting more often and in greater numbers.

For example, about 35 years ago there were 21 African Americans in the House of the 99th Congress (1985-1986), but none in the Senate. Approximately 60 years ago, there were four African American Members in the 87th Congress (1961-1962), all serving in the House.

Between the early 1900s to the 1960s, there were a few hundred elected Black officials. Today well over 10,000 African Americans hold elective office, from school boards to Congress, throughout the United States. What has made this possible is a combination of federal, state and local legislation, administrative affirmative efforts and, most importantly, citizen engagement through peaceful protests and increased number of African Americans deciding to vote to elect their fellow brothers and sisters to elective office. 

The past 60 years of political engagement has seen the largest demonstration of African American self- help in the struggle to reclaim our worth, to emphasize that our lives matter, too. The last 60 years were a determined effort to remind this country that we have been the soul of this country; we have been the conscience of the nation; we have been the moral compass of America, and no amount of Proud Boys, and other Ultra-Rightist groups will deter us from standing up for ourselves and for America as a nation. This country is the only political geography that we have and can rightly claim as our own. Our struggle to be somebody of value in this country has been simultaneously a struggle of this nation to live up to the positive contents of its soul. 

There is no mistake about it folks, this is a good country at heart, but the destructive forces within will not allow the nation to rise to the level it desires to be and must be. I believe candidate and now President Biden understood this and therefore decided he would stand up on behalf a nation whose soul was in dire need of restoration. Truth is, he couldn’t do it by himself; he turned to the source: a determined group of people who have been historically tried by fire, knocked down, brutalized, yet have come back with a simple statement: We are still here; we are not going anywhere. We are moving forward. That’s the message African Americans affirmed in the last presidential election and in the Georgia runoff on Jan. 5, 2021.

Lest we forget, our African American women deserve special recognition for the role they played in restoring the soul of America and their pointing to the way forward for assured continued progress, not just for our African American community but for America as a whole.   I fully agree with Amy Traub who wrote that America owes it to so many African American women who helped to “restore American Democracy–from leaders like Stacey Abrams, Nse Ufot, and LaTosha Brown to the many others who organized tirelessly—played a critical role in enabling voters to cast ballots in the first place, by registering voters, mobilizing their communities, and fighting against voter suppression.”

We, the African American community, are busily engaged in helping this country to narrow the gap between its political ideals and its governmental practices. Indeed, it’s a grand coalition of all peoples of color and ancestry who are making a difference for the better. Now that we as a community have taken the lead in flushing away a set of unbecoming American practices by the past administration, may we keep the faith of our freedom fighters, who are looking down with a smile of approval, cheering us on with the sweet, enduring refrain: “Forward ever, backward never.”

Keith C. Simmonds, Ph.D. is a political science professor at Florida A&M University.

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