I grew up in the civil-rights era in Mississippi, where my parents registered Black folks to vote for the first time, and I served as a poll-watcher in the first South African election where citizens of all races were allowed to vote. Trust me, I know that every vote is precious.
As a pastor in Michigan, which Trump won in 2016 by just 10,000 votes, that rings truer than ever. There’s too much at stake to allow our voices to go unheard. That’s why this November, I will be an election observer, on the lookout to stop voter intimidation and make sure every vote is counted.
The Rev. Keith Whitney is the senior pastor at Sanctuary Fellowship Baptist Church in Detroit and serves as the board president for MOSES, an interfaith organization advocating for social justice in Metro Detroit.
This year, people are going to great lengths to develop a safe voting plan 3 million Michiganders have already requested ballots. Trump is working overtime to suppress the vote by spreading lies about our vote-by-mail system and encouraging voter intimidation by supporting white supremacist armed militia groups – like the one that stormed our Capitol this summer, or the one that recently threatened to kidnap our governor. And his antics have emboldened people like the conservative hoaxers who were charged this month for trying to dissuade Black Detroiters from voting by spreading false information.
But we cannot afford to bend to voter intimidation and suppression. I know this fight personally. When my parents worked to register people to vote in the early 1960s, the Ku Klux Klan was so afraid of us gaining power, they shot at our house. Our home was bugged by the FBI and our phones were tapped by the White Citizens’ Councils. When my mom went to vote, she had to first pass a literacy test. People that we knew lost their lives so the rest of us could vote. They endured that violence because they were determined to change things in our neighborhood to be better for all of us. Now we must vote so that we no longer have to endure violence.
When I was 8 years old, I saw on television the white supremacist violence that took place in South Africa and how it wasn’t unlike what we were facing at home. Thirty years later, I went to observe the first South African election after apartheid. I saw people standing in lines almost two miles long, and I talked to people who had walked two days just to vote for the first time. I was amazed. I came across a 60-year-old Black school, who had tears streaming down his face as he told me, “I’m gonna tell my students that I voted.” His words stuck with me.
In Michigan, there are people threatening to strip us of our rights and frighten us at the polls with weapons in hand. But I will do everything I can to protect our voices at the ballot box, so that you can tell your students, or your child that you stood up to white supremacy and did everything in your power to make this a safer, less divided world for all of us to thrive.