11/05/2012 11:35 am ET Updated Jan 04, 2013

Voting: A Sacred Obligation

The most important lessons I ever learned weren't in courses taught by professors with degrees from any of America's well known universities. Instead, they were lessons taught by my parents, Eddie and Carrie Nelms, subsistence farmers, who graduated from the School of Hard Knots and understood that education was more than a collection of courses. They were Master Teachers who sought to teach their eleven children four timeless but important lessons:

1. Education is the pathway to opportunity irrespective of one's race, gender or socio-economic status;

2. Land ownership is second only to education in terms of helping African Americans enjoy the full privileges of citizenship;

3. Exercising the right to vote---one person one vote---trumps wealth in ways unimaginable when fully employed;

4. Self-advocacy is far more effective than the single advocacy of an elected official who is obligated to balance the conflicting interests and needs of numerous constituencies.

My father, affectionately known to his children as, Papa, was a rural Community Organizer who operated under the cover of darkness to register sharecroppers to vote and to recruit black farm owners to run for seats on school boards dominated by White Planters who cared little about the educational well-being of the sons and daughters of sharecroppers and subsistence farmers. After all, their prime objective was to ensure the availability of a source of cheap labor to plant, till, and harvest their crops.

The owners of a 40 acre farm nestled between two large plantations in poverty-striken and racially-segregated Eastern Arkansas, my parents exuded a level of resolve, confidence, independence and humility that I have difficulty grasping even today. They knew how to stay one step ahead of the Klansman and his noose by appearing submissive all the while being subversive.

Given my parents unwavering belief that we could be anything that we wanted to be if we prepared ourselves educationally and personally, I'm confident that they would not be surprised by the fact that America elected its first African American president, Barack Obama, in 2008, and that he is standing for re-election on Tuesday, November 6, 2012. Daring not to denigrate the memory nor the sacrifices of my parents, I have voted in every local and national election since becoming eligible to vote many years ago. You see, it was my parents and grandparents who secured that right for me by enduring the humiliating effects of having to take literacy tests for which there were no answers to the questions, and to pay a poll tax with money they didn't have.

Recognizing my sacred obligation to vote, I have already taken advantage of the opportunity to vote early; my ancestors would wouldn't expect anything less. But even if I hadn't voted early, I would happily stand in line countless hours because Eddie and Carrie, my parents, waited nearly 50 years to vote.

November 4, 2012 is All Saints Day at the church where I worship. So, today I lit a candle and remembered with gratitude and fondness four lessons that I learned more than 60 years ago from two Saints, who graduated from the School of Hard Knots, about what it means to enjoy the privileges of citizenship---the opportunity and the obligation to vote!