Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell III, (center), Rep. Kweisi Mfume (far left), Chief Judge Lewyn S. Garrett (right) and Sen. Michael Bowen Mitchell, Sr. (second from right) and others. (Courtesy Photo)

By Lisa Mitchell Sennaar

It is our responsibility to vote in the Nov. 3 general election. Our ancestors told us that eternal vigilance was the price of freedom. Part of that vigilance means that we accept voting in every election as our responsibility, not merely an option. There have always been attempts to systematically keep Black people from voting. While we fight voter suppression, we must make a plan to vote. 

In my previous two columns, I wrote about Black Baltimore’s political organizing in the 1930’s through the 1960’s. I share this part of our history, because it is not taught in our public schools. It’s empowering to know that our ancestors founded the City-wide Young Peoples Forum in the early 1930’s to give voice to and politically educate the masses of young people who were disenfranchised. During the mid 1930’s, the adults who supported the City-wide Young Peoples Forum revitalized the dormant local Baltimore Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and worked in coalition with the Forum. The revitalized Baltimore Branch of the NAACP went beyond the Forum’s mission. The NAACP grew an infrastructure that encompassed mobilization of the people to access their human rights through non-violent mass protests, use of the courts and voting. The NAACP created and sustained voter education, registration and get out the vote campaigns into the late 1960’s. The key to yielding greater participation was that they met regularly to keep Black Baltimore engaged in the fight for freedom and connected to the voting process, not just when there was an election.

Around the time of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, new mainly Black led organizations began to form that specifically focused on the elective political aspect of the fight for freedom. Black Baltimore began to wield more of its political voice by electing people that came from our community and represented more of, if not all, of our political interests.

“The People’s Democratic Action Organization (PDAO), founded in 1967, was one of the first organizations that gave voice to Black Baltimoreans seeking political redress of their grievances.  My brother Clarence used to say that we organize so that we can make people who represent us say yes, when they want to say no,” said Senator Michael Bowen Mitchell Sr., member of PDAO, younger brother and first campaign manager of PDAO founder, Senator Clarence Mitchell, III (1939-2012). 

When I was a little girl in the late 1960’s, I remember monthly meetings of the People’s Democratic Action Organization (PDAO) on Pennsylvania Avenue. Regular attendees and members of PDAO included Black ministers, business owners, postal workers, firefighters, construction trade union members, hospital workers, neighborhood and homeowner association leaders and a cadre of committed Black women who were the backbone of PDAO members that formed committees to articulate legislative and programmatic solutions to community problems and needs. During the annual 90-day legislative session in Annapolis, PDAO would routinely provide close to a dozen school buses for PDAO members to attend the Monday sessions of the Maryland Legislature which started at 8:00 pm. PDAO members who worked during the day, could get on one of the of PDAO buses after work and be in Annapolis in time for the 8:00 pm session and participate in democracy. PDAO also conducted year-round voter registration training and outreach. They had ward, precinct and block captains who assumed responsibility for getting their neighbors to the polls. By the time an election rolled around, election workers were already trained. We can learn from our past successful models. We can learn what worked and what we could improve upon. There are some organizations today that do some of these things. They could use our membership and support.

Once again, our young people have been mobilizing and protesting for justice in America. We have implored them to get involved and must support them in connecting to the rules for voting, so they may see the fruits of their labor and stay engaged.

Lisa Mitchell Sennaar’s career includes a decade in television, radio production and broadcast. Her family, the Jackson/Mitchells of Maryland, left their imprint on the Civil Rights Revolution of the 20th Century. They served and helped to build local, state and national organizations. They also served 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.

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