The Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. asks the question and gently calls the students who rise in response to the front of the Greek theater at Central Academy of Excellence.
How many are 18 years old but not registered to vote? How many will be 18 before Nov. 8 but are not registered to vote?
Slowly, roughly two dozen students form a line in front of the room and wait to fill out voter registration cards.
Those who had come before them fought for this privilege, the civil rights activist and former presidential candidate reminded students in a 30-minute speech Tuesday morning, encouraging the group of mostly seniors to vote in the upcoming election.
On the August day in 1963 that Dr. Martin Luther King addressed the nation with his “I Have a Dream” speech, black Americans couldn’t use a public toilet, take pictures on the lawn of the state Capitol, buy ice cream from Howard Johnson’s, or apply to certain colleges, Jackson said.
The barriers that civil rights activists worked to break set the stage for modern victories, such as the first black president and the first female presidential nominee.
“We are a better nation because the walls are down,” Jackson told the group, which also included community members such as former educator Carl Boyd and pastor Wallace Hartsfield Sr. “Barack Obama could not be president today had not the walls come down,” he said. “A woman would not be running for president had not the walls come down.”
Jackson spoke of using the power of a vote to elect leaders who promote equal opportunity for all during his Central Academy of Excellence address Tuesday, a stop he said he decided to make as he visits Kansas City for the National Baptist Convention this week. His speech was both an address and a performance. Sometimes he spoke to the crowd, other times he encouraged the group to repeat back his words.
“What I love about him is the way that he delivers and connects with the audience and the way that he uses his rhyming skills, because that’s what the kids are used to nowadays,” assistant principal Kathyrene Hayes said. “They are used to rap artists. The way that he connects is the way that he rhymes.”
Jackson stressed to the students that there is still work to be done in realizing King’s dreams of political empowerment, tolerance and breaking barriers that impede equal opportunity.
“The challenge of our time has become learning to live together,” he said.
While he did not directly mention presidential frontrunners Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, he referenced finding common ground with Islamic and Latino people, both in American and outside of it.
“Mexico is our neighbor that isn’t going away,” said Jackson, who encouraged students to learn Spanish. “We share 2,000 miles with Mexico.”
Ontario Wilson, a Central Academy of Excellence senior who is on the drill and color guard team and plans to join the military, said he registered to vote after Jackson’s speech. He particularly enjoyed Jackson’s comments on equal opportunity. Jackson had pointed out that black Americans excel in athletics, where the “playing field is even and the rules are public.” Creating fair and equal environments in other sectors can replicate that success, Jackson said.
“It’s true,” Wilson said. “How they are equal and stuff on the football field, they should be equal in life — no matter what race you are.”
He said he and his friends are voting for Clinton and “don’t want Donald Trump to win.”
“He was speaking from the heart,” Wilson said of Jackson. “ I’m pretty sure everybody was catching on it. Everybody liked what he said. He was speaking the truth.”