Facts about the Michael Brown shooting case in Ferguson have dribbled out agonizingly slowly but some interesting demographics revealed themselves in the interim.
For example, we learned that Ferguson, a city of 21,000 people, has a racial makeup of 30 percent white, 67 percent black with other minorities making up the remainder. We also learned that Ferguson’s 53-man police force contains only three black officers and that its mayor and five of the six aldermen are also white.
That seems odd until you discover that African-American voting behavior in Ferguson is deplorable — just 12 percent cast ballots in the last election. Believe it or not, that was twice the turnout of the 2013 municipal election. Don’t get me wrong, while this kind of turnout is appalling — the Rev. Al Sharpton told an assembled group that it was “an insult to your children” — the white folks of Ferguson didn’t do much better. Just 17 percent of them bothered to go to the polls in that election.
But Ferguson is not an oddity in this regard. For example, just 24 percent of Missouri voters took the time to cast a ballot in last month’s state election. That, despite the fact that there were seven questions on the ballot ranging from a sales tax for transportation to a constitutional amendment declaring the right to farm.
We, on this side of the river have nothing to brag about. I don’t know how many will turn out at the polls in Illinois this November but the last time we elected a governor, a U.S. senator, congressman, state reps and senators, etc., just 42 percent of us bothered with it.
For a country that revolted against the mighty British Empire because of taxation without representation, I think this is disgraceful. Stop for a moment and think about the generations of Americans who have fought and died to get and protect the right to vote,
When our country began, only white men who owned real property or paid taxes were allowed to vote. That gradually changed over the first half of the 19th century as property and tax qualifications were eliminated for men but blacks and women were still denied the vote.
In the aftermath of the Civil War the country ratified the 15th Amendment, which gave black men the right to vote. This right, however, did not last long as southern states, beginning with Mississippi in 1890, developed “Jim Crow” laws to block African-Americans from exercising their suffrage. Through a combination of residency requirements, literacy tests, poll taxes and other gimmicks, Mississippi was able to reduce the number of eligible black voters from 147,000 to 9,000. Using similar methods, Louisiana reduced its number from 130,000 to just over 1,300.
American women worked for the right to vote for more than 70 years before achieving success. The first women’s rights convention was held in 1848 and called for women’s suffrage. Over the next seven decades women worked tirelessly to somehow garner the right to vote. It wasn’t won until the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920.
For African-Americans the fight was far more difficult. Taking a page from Mississippi’s book, Jim Crow laws spread throughout the south and all but eliminated their ability to vote for a hundred years after the civil war. In 1965, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led a march from Selma, Ala., to the state capital of Montgomery. On “Bloody Sunday” they were attacked by 200 state police with tear gas, night sticks, whips and dogs.
A century of strife and sacrifice was finally rewarded with the passage of the Voting Rights Act in August 1965.
This is what generations of Americans have endured to win the right to vote in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Nearly 850,000 have died in wars to protect our democracy. And we can’t be bothered to vote?!
When Benjamin Franklin left Independence Hall after the Constitutional Convention adjourned, a woman asked him, “Well, Doctor, what have we got—a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin responded, “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”
That republic — a form of government in which power resides in the people and the government is run by elected leaders according to law — is morphing into an oligarchy run by the wealthy and powerful because we’re too lazy to heed Franklin’s advice.
As someone once said, “The world belongs to those who show up.” Start showing up, America!
Alan Ortbals is president and publisher of the Illinois Business Journal.