On Sept. 15, a bright Saturday morning in Alexandria, Va., a crowd estimated at five dozen or more parishioners and supporters of Alfred Street Baptist Church attended a rally organized by the church, the NAACP, and the Northern Virginia Coalition on Black Civic Participation.
The event kicked off the NAACP’s “16 on the 16th” voter mobilization challenge, in which Alfred Street Church members and others nationally pledged to register 16 voters each before the upcoming November general election.
Coined in memory of the 1963 bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, the movement is designed to inspire African-Americans to vote by creating connections to those who have sacrificed for that right.
Exactly 49 years ago from the date of the rally, Sept. 15, 1963, four African-American girls–Addie Mae Collins (14), Denise McNair (age 11), Carole Robertson (age 14), and Cynthia Wesley (age 14)–were killed when the Ku Klux Klan set off explosives at a service at the 16th Street Baptist Church.
“These four beautiful, innocent martyrs became a catalyst in the ongoing struggle for civil and human rights in America,” stated NAACP Chairman Roslyn M. Brock, an Associate minister of Alfred Street Church. According to Brock, the death of these youngsters, along with President Kennedy’s assassination, crystallized a national consciousness resulting in the 1964 Voting Rights Act.
Political observers assert that President Obama’s election is a direct result of the Voting Rights Act. This point was made by Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), in his comments following Brock at the rally.
Georgetown University Professor Michael Eric Dyson also addressed rally-goers, saying “he price of freedom has never been free.” Dyson, reflecting on the victims of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, said they were “ushered into the precinct of the divine by an act of extraordinary violence. We cannot allow their memory to be erased because we now are so comfortable in our condition and in our situation that we don’t understand what they sacrificed. We’re arguing over…the accumulation of disposable wealth, and our rights are being eroded even as we make those arguments.”
“The blood has been spilled on the ground… for your right to vote.” Dyson encouraged those gathered to watch the Spike Lee documentary called “Four Little Girls” to learn more of the sacrifices made by the Alabama bombing victims for the right to vote.
Dyson also assailed voter ID laws enacted under the pretext of preventing voter fraud. He observed that efforts are underway to change these “anti-voter fraud” laws, but until then, Dyson chided the audience, “Act like you’re going to a Jay-Z concert…act like you’re going to make a sacrifice in something in which you are invested.”
A local historical connection about what’s at stake this November came from Moran who represents the Alfred Street Baptist Church community and other neighborhoods in Congress. Moran noted the historical significance of Alfred Street Baptist Church, which according to the church’s website, was the first Baptist church formed by colored people north of Richmond, Va.
Moran also reflected, “Alexandria used to be part of the District of Columbia. The people of Alexandria” took what was once Virginia land back from D.C. “over the issue of slavery.” The veteran congressman encouraged the audience to look for images of freed slaves kneeling, begging Alexandria whites not to vote to go back to Virginia.
“For some of you,” Moran noted, “these are the people whose blood, genes, and certainly spirit you carry today…they were counting on you…they suffered…that one day their great-great grandchildren would be free…that they would never take for granted the political power to be represented by people who believe in freedom for everyone.”
Moran’s plea was particularly felt by seniors like Margarette Peterson, a member of Alfred Street Church, whose vote is key for Democrats hoping to win Virginia for President Obama’s reelection campaign. Peterson says for her, the central issue is Medicare.
“We have used it … so we have been very, very pleased to see that this president is willing to take care of all of us.” In response to Republican advertisements that claim that Medicare was cut by the president to pay for his Affordable Care Act, Peterson does not buy it. “We listen very carefully,” said Peterson of her and fellow seniors. As a result, Peterson predicts that like four years ago, seniors, African Americans, and other key constituents for Democrats in Virginia will come out in record number.
Recent polls support this theory. According to Public Policy Polling, Obama has a five percentage point lead over over contender Mitt Romney, 51%-46% in Virginia.
The writer is a lawyer and talk-show host in the District of Columbia and can be reached at Talib@talibkarim.com.