COLUMN: Chancellor urges all U of I students to vote

By Chancellor Richard Herman

On November 4, I urge you to turn out in large numbers and participate in one of our most precious and, at various times, one of our most contested rights: the right to vote.

And when you do go to the polls I want to remember this name: Amelia Boynton Robinson.

Forty three years ago, on March 7, 1965, a day that will always be known as “Bloody Sunday,” this remarkable and courageous woman was one of 600 peaceable citizens trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on a 54-mile march to Montgomery to protest voting rights discrimination against African Americans. The 15th Amendment granted the right to vote to all citizens regardless of race, but certainly that right was not guaranteed in Alabama and elsewhere.

On that fateful spring day Ms. Robinson almost lost her life.

As recounted in an article on voting rights in a recent issue of LAS News, “Alabama state troopers brandishing nightsticks, barbed clubs, bullwhips, and cattle prods attacked the marchers, clubing some into unconsciousness. More than 100 were injured and 17 hospitalized.”

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    Ms. Robinson was left for dead. Today, she is still very much alive and has been a champion of civil rights her at home and around the world.

    The footage of the violence was shown across the United States. It shocked, saddened and enraged us. Five months later, on August 6, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark Voting Rights Act into law, which strengthened the 15th Amendment by, among other measures, outlawing literacy tests that unfairly targeted minorities and by adding federal oversight to the process.

    At President Johnson’s side that day was Amelia Boynton Robinson.

    On the 40th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in 2005, Ms. Robinson wrote, “The struggle did not begin nor end with getting the right to vote as a first-class citizen in 1965. Strangely enough, this freedom or privilege was purchased by people of all races who gave themselves: Blood, sweat, tears, as well as death, paying the supreme price for freedom. There are unsung heroes and heroines whom we will never know.”

    Courageous acts are the legacy of American democracy. Indeed, it is not a reach to say there is blood on that ballot. Those acts benefitted all Americas.

    Consider the thousands of African Americans such as Ms. Robinson who peacefully chose to defy state-supported violence to exercise their right to vote-and yours-a mere forty years ago. There are women such as Fanny Lou Hamer, a sharecropper from Mississippi, who defied the racism and violence of the day and became the first person in her hometown of Ruleville to register to vote. Because of her action she lost her job and she was later jailed and beaten.

    She risked her life to vote because, as she put it, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”

    Think back to the women’s suffrage movement that culminated in the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that granted the right to vote to women. The names of women associated with that movement are a Who’s Who list of American heroes, among them Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Sojourner Truth.

    And when you go to the polls, remember the brave men and women in uniform today and in the past who valiantly defend our right to vote and our right to democracy.

    This November 4th, we will not confront armed militias, racists and sexist taunts, or poll taxes and literacy tests. The polls are open all day and into the evening. It takes only a few minutes to fill out a ballot and courage is not a necessary requirement.

    So let’s have a 100 percent Illini voter turnout. No matter who you vote for, on November 4, we will participate as one nation. Another American hero and a champion of voting rights, Martin Luther King, Jr., put it this way:

    “We may have sailed in different ships, but we are all in the same boat now.”

    Words to live and to vote by.