"So long as I do not firmly and irrevocably possess the right to vote I do not possess myself. I cannot make up my mind -- it is made up for me. I cannot live as a democratic citizen, observing the laws I have helped to enact -- I can only submit to the edict of others." - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
George doesn't talk much about politics but he is sure of at least one thing: "Politics rules and everybody's not equal in politics." To make sure I've captured the point, he concludes our interview by adding, "I don't believe we're equal, never have."
George's sentiments are not surprising to me given the circumstances of our meeting. We have just completed lunch for homeless people, a hearty paper plate of southern comfort food served with bug juice in a homey, church-run shelter presided over by the peerless "Momma Donna." George eats here because he can't afford the take-out joint down the street and because there are no grocery stores in walking range. Indeed, nothing about his life says "equality," a familiar theme in my poverty research tour by Greyhound bus.
Still, George's words land differently on my page today. The shelter where we are sitting is just a few short blocks from Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church and the downtown square where Rosa Parks made her fateful decision to take and keep her seat on a Montgomery bus sixty years ago. I had hoped to hear something different in my interviews here.
Equality is not an abstract idea for George. The 53 year-old with closely-cropped black hair, a slender frame, and a knowing air got his start in life just as the Civil Rights movement was nearing its height in the early 1960s. He has ample regard for its "prophet" Dr. Martin Luther King, who launched his preaching career and led the Montgomery bus boycott from his perch on Dexter Avenue down the street.
Nevertheless, he feels that Civil Rights largely passed him by.
Raised by a single mother in a modern-day sharecropping community some 50 miles south of Montgomery, George and his eight siblings had little awareness of the marches, the sit-ins, the registration drives, or their effects. He has yet to cast a ballot.
Instead, the nine children and their momma were hired out to white farmers six days a week, starting around age five, to pick peanuts, beans, and the like. Along the way, George earned the better part of a grade school education in de-facto segregated schools, working summers, weekends, and after school. High school was out of the question.
Unlike his ancestors who worked those same fields as slaves, George was never whipped by the white farmers. The economic pressure they exerted was enough. Spurred on by economics and a desperate urge to see her children succeed, it was momma who "put the fear of God in us with her whoopings," he recalls. "I brought you into this world and I'll send you right back home if you don't behave!" she would say.
What he lost in the way of a childhood George made up for in his teens and twenties when he left home. He traveled through Minnesota, Kansas, Arkansas, and Colorado working odd jobs and looking for a party. The partying landed him in jail, like so many of other African Americans of his generation who earned felony convictions for nonviolent, drug-related offenses. It also stripped him of what formal equality he had gained through Civil Rights.
In Alabama and forty-seven other American states, people with felony convictions lose the right to vote. In thirty-six states, their loss of voting rights remains in effect after they leave prison. And in a dozen states, including Alabama, they continue to be disenfranchised even after they have completed probation and parole - often for life. Most were jailed for nonviolent offenses in a criminal justice system legal scholar Michelle Alexander terms the "New Jim Crow." Some never even set foot in prison or jail.
Taken together, nearly six million Americans in forty-eight states - five percent of voter turnout in recent presidential elections - are currently disenfranchised because of a prior conviction. The majority of them are poor and many, like George, are men of color who subsist in deep poverty on less than $12,000 per year for a typical family of four.
People with felony convictions are not the only Americans who struggle to make their voices heard in politics. Nearly five million more American citizens residing in the nation's capitol, Puerto Rico, and the other island territories lack voting representation in Congress. And tens of millions more law-abiding citizens face informal barriers to the polls from costly photo ID requirements to long lines at the polls. They are disproportionately low-income people and people of color.
The upshot, according to George? "Our government is corrupt," he tells me matter-of-factly. In a system where the vast majority of low-income people stay home on Election Day - whether by outright disenfranchisement or subtler forms of exclusion - and where they provide not even a sliver of the millions of dollars that funds campaigns, how can government possibly fulfill its purpose to represent all the people?
To George, it's just politics working as it was designed to work. "That's always been the way of politics, always will be," he concludes.
Not according to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. When King delivered his inaugural speech on the eve of the Montgomery Bus Boycott sixty years ago, he spoke first and foremost of democracy. "We are here [because] we are American citizens and we are determined to apply our citizenship to the fullness of its meaning."
As we mark the 60th anniversary of the boycott that launched the Civil Rights Movement in the 20th century, we would do well to remember the millions of American citizens, like George, who are struggling to earn their keep and keep their faith in a nation they do not believe has kept faith with them.
Restoring voting rights and representation to people who have served their time and to residents of Washington, DC and the territories would be a good place to start.
"King's fight ain't over with, it's a job unfinished and nobody else to carry it on," George says. Let's prove him wrong.
Daniel Weeks is author of Democracy in Poverty: A View from Below a collection of interviews and analysis collected while traveling 10,000 miles through 30 states by Greyhound bus on a poverty line budget of $16 per day.
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