By Lisa Mitchell Sennaar

Organizing support and voting for representatives who will vote to protect our rights are not new to Black Baltimoreans. We should, however, do a better job of educating our young leaders about the strategies that were utilized to leverage our power with elected representatives in the past. I am old enough to remember my grandmother, Juanita Jackson Mitchell, talking about a group she co-founded in Baltimore in 1931 with her sister Virginia. It was the non-partisan City-Wide Young People’s Forum. The Forum received financial support from its Adult Advisory Committee who knew the important work these young leaders were doing. This support aided the new organization in flourishing and becoming a nationally recognized institution during the Depression era.

Members of the City-Wide Young People’s Forum protesting lynching.

The City-Wide Young People’s Forum held two-hour weekly meetings on Friday evenings in Baltimore area churches in the fall through the spring from 1931-1938, with less regularity until 1942. Audiences from several hundred to 2,000 people gathered, as Professor Prudence Cumberbatch wrote in her 2009 article, “What the Cause Needs is a Brainy and Energetic Woman” – “… creating a distinct youth culture and engaging in transformative dialogue with the larger Black community.” Forum members learned and sparred with Mary McLeod Bethune, Charles Hamilton Houston, Nannie Helen Burroughs as well as numerous elected and appointed officials and policy makers. The Forum was a social and political outlet that also advocated for direct action. Members campaigned against lynching and promoted consumer boycotts that secured jobs for Black Baltimoreans. The organization became so respected that it was said no politician from Baltimore’s mayor on down would pass up an opportunity to appear when invited by the Forum.

We just marked the 55th anniversary of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. It passed in the U.S. Senate by a 77-19 vote on May 26, 1965. After debating the bill for more than a month, the House of Representatives passed the bill by a vote of 333-85 on July 9. On August 6, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act into law. It banned poll taxes, literacy tests, and other measures that effectively prevented Black Americans from voting. It has been challenged since its passage and our community and our allies have been fighting for fifty-five years to preserve and now restore the protections guaranteed under the original Voting Rights Act. 

Recently, we witnessed mostly young people who’ve taken to the streets throughout the world during the covid-19 pandemic to demand an end to the killing of Black people by police officers and for justice for Black Americans. It is essential that we take a cue from our past leaders and support our new young leaders’ efforts and communicate the urgency of mobilizing our community to vote in the November 3, 2020 election. My great grandmother often advised us that you start with your family, neighbors, church members, club members and others close to you. You have the most influence with them. Assist them in getting their ballots completed. If necessary, offer to drive them to the polls. Do whatever it takes. 

A bill passed recently in the House of Representatives that would have reinstated federal oversight of state election laws, but the current Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has not brought a similar bill to the Senate floor. He has enough senate votes to keep the bill off the floor. Getting him and others who oppose this legislation defeated in November, could move the number of votes up enough to get the Voting Rights bill to the Senate floor in 2021 and get it passed.

“When I was in college, they were lynching people in Maryland. I could not go to the University of Maryland, because they would not admit Blacks. We viewed the courts and the legislature as avenues of correction and the same tools are valid for today’s generation. We must register to vote and go out and vote.” – Juanita Jackson Mitchell.

Lisa Mitchell Sennaar’s career includes a decade in television and radio production and broadcast. Her family, the Jackson/Mitchells of Maryland left their imprint on the Civil Rights Revolution of the 20th Century, serving and helping to build local, state and national organizations; also serving at every level of government: the United Nations, House of Representatives, Maryland State Legislature and Baltimore City Council. Lisa works in state government, is married and the mother of two teenagers.