In 2008, for the first time in our history, African Americans turned out to the polls at the same rate as white voters.
Then we spent the next four years hearing that that high turnout was a fluke. "Experts" told us we would lose our enthusiasm. We'd be daunted by new voting laws. We'd want to protest marriage equality. We'd think our vote doesn't count.
The "experts" were wrong. On November 6, African Americans turned out to vote in record numbers, many of us waiting in long lines and going through plenty of red tape to do so. One of these was a determined 100 year old "Church Mother" in Elmhurst, New York who didn't want any favors and stood in line and in solidarity with her fellow citizens.
This happened not just because our enthusiasm lasted, but because our organization strengthened.
African American communities had strong voter turnout operations long before there was an African American man on the presidential ballot, with many of them centered around the Black Church. These turnout operations are there for a reason: ever since the process toward full citizenship of African Americans began with the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, politicians and others have been trying to stop us from exercising the hard fought, hard won right to vote.
This year, the attacks on our rights were intentionally suppressive on the African American voter. Elections officials in Ohio and Florida, for example, cut back on early voting hours, resulting in long lines at early voting location and on election day - primarily in African American communities. Politicians from Pennsylvania to South Carolina tried to implement Voter ID laws, which disproportionately disenfranchise African Americans. Around the country, election law changes big and small threatened access to the ballot box. But armed with the sacred text of our faith that says, "what man meant for evil, God intended for good", we did what we do - fight a good fight!
In response to these attacks, African American turnout operations developed and strengthened. I personally worked with 1100 pastors in 22 states across denomination and faith traditions through our nonpartisan African American Ministers Leadership Council VESSELS program, to make sure that our congregations had both the skills and the will to vote.
We not only preached to our congregations about the importance of voting, we organized to make sure every person in our communities had the information and access they needed to vote. Reverend Tony Minor of Cleveland and Elder Lee Harris and Pastor RL Gundy of Jacksonville worked in diverse coalitions to organize early voting and Election Day rides-to-the-polls hotline to help those in need get out to vote. In Detroit, Bishops Allyson Abrams and Diana Williams recruited youth and young adults to share with people on the streets the importance of voting. Reverend Michael Couch of Philadelphia educated and motivated people who had served time for felonies and their families about getting their voting rights restored.
Reverend Barry Hargrove of Baltimore visited local barbershops on the weekends and registered voters while they got their hair cut. Reverend Charles Christian Adams in Detroit and Reverend Patrick Young in New York along with many others turned their fellowship halls into polling sites. Sister Jackie Dupont Walker in Los Angeles and Reverend Isaac McCullough in St. Louis used radio, email and social media, while Reverend Frank Raines, III, in Buffalo and Reverend Willie Gable in New Orleans held community breakfast gatherings to feed spirit, body and mind, and Reverend Paul Brown of DC and Reverend Dr. Greg King of Virginia continued until the last hour to engage pastors and people in that moment in history.
The civic engagement structure that African American churches have built is here to stay. This month, I'm meeting with my brothers and sisters in ministry about strategies we must employ to continue to promote civic engagement since elections happen all the time at every level. Next year there will be municipal, state, special elections and ballot initiatives. It might be perceived as an "off year" for some, but for those of us who have been called to serve for such a time as this, it is "another year" to ask at every opportunity "are you registered, are you ready to vote?"
Pundits and politicians alike have tried to write off the African American vote. But every woman, man, youth and elder of my community knows, we've come too far, seen too much, stood too long, felt "sick and tired of being sick and tired" too often, fought too hard to turn back now.