Chief Niles R. Ford (Twitter Photo)

By Chief Niles R. Ford

This year (2020) has been a significant year of loss amongst historic African-American leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. Towering figures of strength, compassion and moral character; like Reverend Joseph Lowery who along with Dr. Martin Luther King founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Reverend CT Vivian a leader in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) as well as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).  Last but not least as Dr. King called him, “The Boy from Troy” John Lewis the president of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). 

John Lewis went from time to eternity on July 17, 2020. He spent his entire adult life working to make life fairer and more equitable for those who are marginalized and discriminated against. One of the areas he focused his energy was on voting rights. He knew that an inclusive, informed and active electorate going to the voting booths would be powerful.  This group would have the capacity to create progress for generations to come. 

We are absolutely dealing with many different circumstances than John Lewis was working to overcome at the Selma march; where he and many others were brutally beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. However, I would argue that there are similarities.  In certain areas of this country, we are experiencing some of the same types of impediments with new superficially veiled justifications. However, a new dynamic is a result of COVID-19. Predictably there will be a significant shortage of poll workers because of age and personal health concerns.   

Before Congressman Lewis’ passing, he and Mayor Bowser of D.C. toured the “Black Lives Matter” plaza which he said is a “powerful work of art.” Congressman Lewis said, “I tell you the past few days have been so inspiring to me. To see so many young people, so many children, it gives me great hope and we’re going to get there.” He went on to say, “We must continue to be bold, brave, courageous, push and pull, ’til we redeem the soul of America and move closer to a community at peace with itself. But no one, no one, will be left out or left behind because of race or color or nationality.” Many people have argued that BLM is an heir of John Lewis and other leaders of SNCC. 

The United States has been historically plagued with impediments to the right to vote.  The Jim Crow era barriers that John Lewis and SNCC fought against were pervasive. Threats and violence were used to intimidate people of color to prevent them from voting. The literacy test was initiated asking Blacks how many beans were in a jar, how many bubbles in a bar of soap, or even asking individuals with no access to education to read. There were intentional purging of the voter rolls in order to negatively impact people of color. Former prisoners who had most often been arrested on trumped up charges in order for them to provide free labor were prevented from voting. Then there was the poll tax which charged the very poor a sum of money to exercise this basic constitutional right.  

This is a call to action for the heirs of SNCC and the descendants of John Lewis in BLM. The supporters of all races, ethnicities, genders, and sexual orientation who showed up in the hundreds of thousands in justifiable protest. Congressman Lewis said, “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to speak up. You have to say something; you have to do something.” 

I am appealing to the BLM activist to vote and become poll workers. Let’s increase the number at such a velocity that BLM workers at the polls are standing on top of each other. This will allow our senior community, who have stood in the gap for many years an opportunity to focus on their health. It will make sure that those individuals who care about fairness and equality have an opportunity to participate in upholding these virtues during the election.  

I know that voting should be more accessible well beyond the polling place, and so the fight must continue. However, until that battle is won, it would be a rightful outcome to see the lineage of SNCC and John Lewis sitting in the place where people once asked “How many bubbles are in a bar of soap?” 

Niles R. Ford, PhD. is the Fire Chief of the Baltimore City Fire Department.
(Twitter: @ChiefNilesRFord)

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