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Will We Turn out for the Midterm Elections?

The black vote is crucial, but will African-Americans – especially black women – show up to the polls? Political leaders and activists in the community are hoping to engage the electorate before it's too late.

Illustration by Devin Wright

As far as Annie Holt's parents were concerned, she had done a very bad thing. Perhaps it wasn't ladylike or respectable. Still, nothing was going to stop her from protesting conditions in the segregated South. Just because a thing was, didn't mean it always had to be that way. Birmingham, Alabama circa 1963 was an explosive time and place, with the embers of the civil rights movement effectively sparked, the flame was now reaching out across the zeitgeist of black experience. The old guard didn't see much use in agitating white folks in a system that treated black people as second-class citizens, but Holt, an 11th grader, disagreed. The time was ripe for change. And change would come whether blacks embraced it or not.

History calls this moment the Birmingham Children's Crusade, where "thousands of children were trained in the tactics of non-violence," according to Biography, and Holt gladly participated. "(Ultimately), I heeded (her mother's) warnings and abandoned my voters' registration engagements," Holt says. Then, her family moved up to Detroit just in time for the '67 rebellion. That's how it was with her – the pull of historical events seeming to endlessly unfurl in surprising ways.

Holt went on to graduate from Wayne State University with a degree in language arts and found her true calling in education. As a DPS teacher of 24 years, Holt delighted in teaching her students African history, something she had wanted to learn when studying on the campus of Alabama A&M University, a black college, where at that time, she notes, even European history took precedence over a meaningful exploration of black culture. "My passion for us is black people being educated on our history," Holt says. "That's where I was educated, having to teach African-American history to middle school students who were sick and tired of being told your life began as an enslaved African."

After retirement, Holt was ready to rekindle those early activist days. She's worked as a precinct delegate in Detroit, has volunteered with the 14th Congressional District from 2000 "until the redistricting in 2013," she explains, then became a recording secretary of the 13th Congressional District in 2014. Now she's an advocate for Promote the Vote at a time when the nation is in a sort of existential crisis and Michigan's midterm election (on Nov. 6) is one of the most important to watch.

From 2016 to 2018

Promote the Vote's goal is to make voting accessible to everyone. That means making it easier to get to the polls with same-day registration or absentee ballot access without the need to be 62 years old or halfway around the world. The 2016 election is still being analyzed and debated but one thing seems clear – Michigan's role in Donald Trump's election and Hillary Clinton's loss. According to Forbes, Barack Obama won Michigan by 350,000 votes. Compare that with the knowledge that "more than 75,000 Motown Obama voters did not bother to vote for Clinton. They did not become Trump voters – Trump received only 10,000 votes more than Romney did in this county. They simply stayed at home. If even a fraction of these lethargic Democrats had turned out to vote, Michigan would have stayed blue."

A fair assessment and one that Holt has seen up close. Dubbed in some circles as the Hillary Factor, most blacks didn't have the same enthusiasm. "With Hillary … we swallowed that pill," Holt says, referring to the candidate's challenges in connecting with black voters. She pauses for dramatic effect. "Oh, we'd love us some Hillary today!" Strong primary numbers this past August give Holt some hope that people – especially of the black and brown variety – will turn out in November. "I really hope people have learned their lesson," she says. "If you didn't know hands-on (with President Obama), you know hands-on now (with President Trump)."

As she well understands, the black female vote will be key. Roy Moore's candidacy was eviscerated in Alabama with a 96 percent black turnout against him – 98 percent of those votes coming from black women. "I was so excited as I listened to the news regarding the fever and the commitment, (that) folks in the south would show such obvious (animus)," Holt says. "So when that campaign came out and so many black females were engaged in that campaign, it was phenomenal." You guessed it: Holt's hoping for a blue wave; so, too, is the Democratic Party.

Go Blue

Virgie Rollins, chair of the Democratic National Committee Black Caucus, is not overly confident, but the stars might very well align. Rollins has been busy traveling the country this election cycle to galvanize urban communities to vote. The first African-American woman to chair the Michigan Democratic Women's Caucus, Rollins doesn't need a crystal ball to see the pattern forming – black women are crucial to the democratic process. "I think you're going to see a high level of African-American women again (this election) because you've got more African-American women running (nationwide)," Rollins says. "I'm traveling around the country and we're having these regional summits in the DNC to educate and do training and talk to African-Americans – talk about the issues that are affecting their region."

Nationally, a "brown wave" seems to be brewing with the real possibility of three black gubernatorial wins: Andrew Gillum, Florida; Stacey Abrams, Georgia; and Ben Jealous, Maryland. In Michigan, former Detroit city clerk candidate, Garlin Gilchrist is on the ticket as the first potential black lieutenant governor. "What happened in Michigan with Trump carrying Michigan – we cannot have that happen again," Rollins says. "I think people are getting excited now because they're looking around the country … we might get three black governors, so to have an African-American lieutenant governor, I think that's going to be a motivating factor in Michigan."

This election feels different because there is an inherent urgency bubbling beneath the surface. If there was any doubt for anyone keeping track of the midterms, "This is the most important election of your lifetime," Rollins says. "We've got to get out in this election and vote. When they go low, we go vote."

'Bell Wether State'

On Nov. 6, many eyes will be on Michigan's results, and for good reason: the state might predict just how viable the latest liberal movement might be to the 2020 election. Branden Snyder, executive director of Good Jobs Now, an organization that helps communities be more politically aware, has been busy getting out the word to black people about the power, the importance, the weight of the African-American vote. Inspired by Barack Obama's memoir, Dreams from My Father, the University of Michigan grad and Detroit native began to see the connection between building and connecting a personal narrative with social issues, such as job insecurity, social injustice and others. Snyder was so inspired by Obama that he joined his campaign in Ann Arbor.

From that experience, he learned a valuable lesson: "We don't have to go out for democrats, or republicans, we can (work) for our districts and our issues." He's worked in Texas as an organizer, spent a couple of years in Indiana working on some faith-based organizing, and even served as deputy campaign manager for the Gilchrist campaign last year. The 2018 midterms are reflective of a restless electorate, a sign of things to come. All you have to do really, is watch closely. "People are excited about the opportunity to like vent their frustration with the stuff they're seeing. Far too much of the emphasis on that has been on suburban white moms, people in the city are interested in doing that as well," Snyder says. "Michigan is a bellwether state. In 2020 we will be a battleground state – there's no way around it. This is where the fight will happen."

Saving us from Ourselves

Another millennial working hard to get out the black vote this midterm is Nguvu Tsare, vice director for New Leaders Council Detroit. The Lansing native moved to Detroit once he was of legal age for the express opportunity to be around black people. It meant that much to him. Last year, he had an unsuccessful run for city council – District 2 – but hasn't lost his fervor for political activism on a grassroots level. "The biggest thing I learned from that campaign is the need to touch nontraditional voters," Tsare says. "What I've come to realize is … yes, traditional voters matter but if you want to do more than win and if you want to actually have a truly positive impact on your community… it should be a part of your character to reach people – so dejected by the political process – and make them understand what's at stake when they don't vote."

Not voting – as the 2016 results in Michigan show – can have serious, even national consequences. But this shouldn't be a problem for black women voters, who have always led by example. "Black women have for centuries saved America from itself," Tsare says. "That hasn't changed in 2018. Black women have not only been the backbone of the black community but they have been the backbone of this country – even when this country didn't deserve their participation," adding: "I believe black women are going to turn out in large numbers and be the decisive reason why they (the democrats) might take back the House here in Michigan. I love my black women."

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