The first time I voted in an election-casting a vote for the Reverend Jesse Jackson in the 1984 New York State Democratic Primary-I can’t say that I fully appreciated the significance of my vote. As an 18-year-old though, casting my vote for someone who looked liked me and who, more importantly, shared my values and spoke to my concerns, was something that I took for granted.
The same could not be said for my father, who at the age of 18 had little expectation that he could participate in the electoral process, let alone pull a lever for someone who even remotely represented his interest, as a young, illiterate black man growing up in Georgia in the early 1950s.
Eventually my father left the South in 1959 for the big city in an attempt to make a life for himself As the world changed around him-the 1963 March on Washington, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the birth of his only child and the assassination of Rev. King and Robert Kennedy-my father simply put his head down and did what his father had taught him; he kept quiet, didn’t make any trouble, put in a hard day’s work and took care of his family.
In that regard, my father was like so many of the men of his generation, who simply believed that if they put in the time, the rewards of their hard work and their faith in the system would eventually be realized. At the very least my father thought he was investing in a future that his son could benefit from.
It was perhaps that sense of investment in the future that led my father to register to vote for the first time in 1976, though it was more likely the pressure exerted by his labor union-Local 1199-to get more involved as so many municipal unions were under siege in the 1970s.
New York City in the mid-1970s, under the leadership of Mayor Abraham Beame, was on the brink of an unprecedented financial collapse. 1976 was the year that the New York Daily News famously published the headline “Ford to New York: Drop Dead” in response to then President Ford’s denial of the city’s request for federal relief. In addition, the Democrats nominated a peanut farmer, Jimmy Carter, as their Presidential nominee-whom my father identified with as a fellow Georgian.
It was likely that all of these things conspired to make my father do what he had never done before in his life: He voted. He was 41 years old. It was the only time he voted in his life. In retrospect, I’d like to think it was one of the few lasting gifts he could give to his son. Because of his simply act, 1976 was the year that I was awakened to the political process.
I thought about my father’s choices as I walked into my local precinct to vote a few days ago. The spirit of my father, who died on February of this year, has been with me throughout Barack Obama’s 20-month run for the presidency. My father died only a week or two after Senator Obama’s successes on Super Tuesday, so we never really had the chance to talk about Obama’s run.
I imagine that my father would have expressed many of the fears that those of his generation have long held with regards to Obama’s safety. I imagine that my father would have been impressed by Obama’s cool demeanor-much like his own-as enemies and detractors questioned his competence, his qualifications and his patriotism.
I imagine that my father, who suffered from MS and was disabled for the last decade of his life, would have managed to cast only the second vote in his life if fate hadn’t denied him that opportunity.
So in addition to all of the issues that matter to me this election season, I walked in the voting booth and cast a vote in the name of my father-as my father had once cast a vote in the name of his son. I hope to feel him smiling from heaven on the morning of November 5th.