When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963 penned his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech, no African American in Kansas City and possibly the country held a post like A. Shelley McThomas.
Since 2007, she has been the director of the Kansas City Board of Election Commissioners. She sees herself as a sentry, guarding the sacrifices that King and others made, ensuring that all of those who are eligible have the right to vote.
McThomas remembers seeing police attacking civil rights marchers. Those courageous individuals paved the way for voting rights, integration and opportunities. Their work and McThomas’ alma mater, Howard University, created for her a self-confidence and drive on her jobs in the media, public relations and executive posts — especially when it comes to voting.
“Voting is the foundation on which democracy is based,” said McThomas, who was born and raised in Kansas City. “It is the way that members of a free society speak their opinion and let their voices be heard in terms of representation.”
King knew it and focused on voting rights particularly in the South, where grandfather clauses, poll taxes, literacy tests and violence kept African Americans from the polls. King’s efforts resulted in the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Congress renewed it, but this summer, the Supreme Court struck down a key part of the law that had required nine states in addition to certain political jurisdictions to seek Justice Department approval for changes that might affect local elections. The court ruled that times have changed since the law was passed, and Congress needs to update the pre-clearance formula.
Political gridlock will likely stall any action. That’s a tragedy especially when states nationwide have enacted voter identification laws, redrawn districts and reduced times for early voting, negatively affecting minority voter participation.
“I said to local NAACP officers, ‘Did you ever think we’d have this kind of conversation around voting rights?” said McThomas, a 1972 Howard University graduate. “Do we really want to be a country that discourages people from voting?”
The nation’s Founding Fathers never could have imagined voting rights being extended to the offspring of slaves, to women, Latinos, Asian Americans, Native Americans and 18-year-olds. Fortunately they made the Constitution flexible enough for such inclusions as well as accommodating our more mobile and wired society.
It made possible the election of Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 as the nation’s first African American president. A Brookings Institution analysis also showed that African American percentage turnout surpassed other minorities’ and for the first time, by most measures, even whites. If blacks had voted at the same rate in November as they had in the 2004 election, Mitt Romney would be president.
That’s progress. But McThomas doesn’t want it to end. The country has to do more to eliminate the cynicism, causing people to lose faith in elected officials and government.
People have to know that our elections work, giving them a voice in who represents them and how their tax dollars are spent. Citizens must inform themselves before casting ballots. “You have to do the leg work so you know which candidate represents your views,” said McThomas, who joins others for this column series looking at 50 years of civil rights advances while sharing a vision for the next half-century.
The next 50 years, McThomas said, should be about increased voter participation, with race eliminated as an obstacle. “I would like Americans to become passionate about their vote to the point that they would feel embarrassed if they missed an opportunity to vote in any election and understand that to not vote is to give their voice away,” she said.
“If you’re black and don’t vote you go back to 1963,” she said. “The opportunities could disappear. Voting is pivotal in ensuring Dr. King’s dream."
McThomas feels optimistic about the future. King would, too.