Judy Belk is the President and CEO of The California Wellness Foundation. Below is her opinion essay featured in today's USA Today encouraging all Americans, especially communities of color, to vote.
Frustrated. Mad. Those were just two of the ways I felt as I toured the recently opened Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
It was a homecoming of sorts for me. I live in California, but I was born and raised 10 miles from the museum, in Alexandria, Va., in a black neighborhood affectionately referred to as Mudtown.
As I walked the halls of the beautifully curated museum, the exhibits brought back vivid — and painful — memories of my childhood in the early l960s. Memories that made me angry about how much we sometimes take our hard-won rights for granted.
For decades, Virginia chose a path of massive resistance to civil rights, putting up barrier after barrier to disenfranchise its black residents. One of the state’s most effective tools was the poll tax, a shameful policy whose sole purpose was to keep people — African Americans specifically — from having a vote or a voice.
I remember eavesdropping on election-time conversations at church or around the dinner table as my parents and their friends and neighbors talked about the tax. Many said they couldn’t afford it and wouldn’t vote. Others talked about refusing to pay in a show of protest. A few advocated compliance, citing the importance of voting at any cost. But even those with money in hand were often denied the right to cast a ballot as new requirements were dreamt up to shut them out.
In general, Virginia was a tough place for black people to live back then. Not only was there a state-sanctioned campaign to keep blacks from voting, segregation was firmly entrenched. I was born in a segregated hospital. My mom was so outraged by the shoddy treatment she received that when it came time to deliver my younger siblings, she made the trek across the river to D.C., to Howard University’s Freedmen’s Hospital, founded in 1862 to aid in the medical treatment of former slaves.
The problem in the 1960s was that African Americans in Virginia didn’t have the power or influence to push anything anywhere. When the 24th Amendment was ratified in 1964 to prohibit states from imposing poll taxes, Virginia set out to find a way around the Constitution. For years, it made black voters file special paperwork and go through all kinds of other hoops to prove their residence. Virginia didn’t even ratify the 24th Amendment until 1977.
Today, Virginia is very different from the state I grew up in. The poll tax is long gone. Alexandria is a tourist destination and regularly ranks as one of the wealthiest cities in the country. But, as in other states across the country where people feel threatened by changing demographics, there is still plenty of stubbornness in Virginia on issues like voter identification.
That’s why I will never take for granted the privilege and the power of the vote. And it’s why I left the museum feeling frustrated and angry at any American, but especially folks of color, who are contemplating sitting out this upcoming election.