In the fall of 1962, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) assigned me to the town of Selma, Alabama to help register Black people to vote. I had previously been engaged in the Nashville sit-in movement and in the Freedom Rides, helping to fully desegregate a South that was still very resistant, and extending voting rights became the next great struggle I would embark on.
Amelia Boynton Robinson, voting rights activist with the Dallas County Voters League, inspired me to go to Selma. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy: two SNCC teams had already gone down to Selma and determined we couldn’t make any progress there. They said the white people were too mean and the Black people were too afraid, and that the successful movements in Montgomery and Birmingham would not be successful in Selma.
But I had to see for myself.
In Selma, I encountered a community where Black and white residents lived very closely intertwined lives. I got to know Black people who were willing to go to great lengths to register to vote. I also met a lot of resistance to my presence and my attempts to extend the vote. My physical safety and my life were in danger. The FBI later confirmed a conspiracy across three states to murder me, civil rights activist and preacher Benjamin Elton Cox, and civil rights activist Medgar Evers who was killed in 1963. All of this happened because the right to vote is that important.
SNCC focused on both direct action and voter registration, because those are the two fundamental expressions of our democracy. Our direct action brought us so many steps forward, but progress could not be fully won without the vote. We knew if Black people could vote, they could have a voice in who was going to represent them, who was going to make decisions about their communities. They could change how they were looked at and how they were treated.
Today, the vote is just as important as it was in 1962. Your vote is that important. Many, including our political leaders, are working to convince Americans that their votes won’t count because voting can bring about the change that we want to see. You must therefore make every effort to make sure that your vote will count: vote by mail, vote early, or vote in-person on Election Day—just make a plan, and make sure it happens.
Your vote is too important to waste.
The Children’s Defense Fund has resources you can use to make a plan to vote safely and smartly and to vote on behalf of America’s children. Visit the voter resource center here.
Dr. Lafayette was the co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a leader in the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins, a Freedom Rider, an associate of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the former national coordinator of the Poor People’s Campaign. He has been a long-time friend of the Children’s Defense Fund and has generously shared his experience and wisdom with young CDF Freedom Schools® staff and child advocates. He is the current Breeden Scholar-in-Residence at Auburn University and national chair of the board of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.