27 April 2014

Summary: On the evening of the opening of the National Conference on Election Reform, participants from twenty six states gathered in the sanctuary of the Jefferson Street Missionary Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee to listen to a civil rights panel, introduced by Bernard Ellis, conference organizer. Those present were former president of the NAACP Nashville, Reverend Sonnye Dixon, Dr Charles Kimbrough, and Michael Grant. Panelists discussed the struggle to obtain the right to vote during the civil rights era, the need to address the human needs of those most disempowered by the powers that be, and the need for election reform to preserve our democracy.



Bernard Ellis of the National Conference on Election Reform was the first to speak. This was the 25th gathering of his group, the Gathering to Save Our Democracy, since December 12th when they had their first protest regarding election fraud. Members of the Gathering to Save Our Democracy wear orange armbands to symbolize their solidarity with the Ukrainian people who struggled to guarantee free elections at about the same time that this movement was happening. Ellis talked about the historic struggle for civil rights in the South and the appropriateness of hosting the conference at the Jefferson Street Missionary Baptist Church, which has been an important part of the struggle for civil rights in Nashville.



Dr Charles Kimbrough was the first to address the gathering. He said that it was amazing what a few concerned citizens can do. In his own words he said, "We shall overcome. We went to Selma in 1965 because people were being excluded because of their skin color. The same thing happened in Tennessee, where people were excluded and disenfranchised. Black people were determined to win the right to vote. We went to Macon County to help the disenfranchised people there when there was gerrymandering going on in their districts. It has been a long road."



In 1967 Dr Kimbrough went to Southeast Missouri to engage in the civil rights struggle there where people wanted to vote but did not have the leadership. Dr Kimbrough said that, "Those who do not wish to be disturbed by the truth need to know that we will be vigilant and we will see this struggle through."



The next speaker was the Reverend Sonnye Dixon of Hobson United Methodist Church and former president of the Nashville NAACP. Reverend Dixon focused on the importance of human dignity and the emptiness of a struggle if it does not address the human needs of those most disenfranchised by society.



"When I look back at the struggle I look back to the Black Church. I was too young to be active when the civil rights struggle was in its full but I remember James Lawson coming to our community. He said there were people ready to go be arrested in their efforts to struggle for civil rights in Nashville and he needed to find property owners who were willing to bail people out of jail. My father was a property owner and he felt he had a moral obligation to help in this struggle. This was a community effort and everyone had to make a sacrifice. My father agreed to help bail people out, putting up his property as collateral."



"What we need is a holistic approach to voting. It can't just be about voting, it must be about issues that give people a sense of value. The church did that and if we are going to sustain our movement we must do that also. If there is anyone in this struggle we have turned our backs on, it is young black men. We have forgotten about the human aspect of the struggle. In the meanwhile, the right wing political establishment has modeled their success on the historic black church. The republicans are taking it to the churches, but they do not empower these people as individuals but rather use them for their votes."



"If we want to win we must show up in people's lives. Successful campaigns happen when we value people and let them know they are part of the process. If we do not reach out to invidividuals and give them repsect and dignity we will not succeed. We need to move the disenfranchised and marginalized to the empowered and valued. This is about individuals being valued for who they are. Our agenda is about human dignity."



The final speaker of the opening plenary was Michael Grant. Mr Grant praised the visionary leadership of Bernard Ellis and praised Reverend Tex Thomas for hosting the conference at the Jefferson Street Missionary Baptist Church. Dr Grant opened his remarks by asking three questions about election reform.



"I want to begin by asking you three questions and these are the following: Why should we care? How much should we care? and How do we connect this issue with the historical precedent of civil rights?"



"We cannot afford to fail. People have to know their votes were counted. Nothing is more sacred than freedom and democracy. If you love what we are doing then I urge you to call every member of Congress and tell them that we will have a paper trail. We will have voting machines that give us a paper receipt and our votes can be verified. We must fight this fight until every vote is counted. We must insist on the highest standards of accuracy. Voters must be able to independently verify the process and there needs to be triple redundancy. There can be no way that someone can hack into a machine to steal our votes. "



"We the people must talk about why democracy is important. Democracy is about the will of the people. We must keep it this way and the only way is to reform our voting system. Our cause is something that can lift people up. The sovereign will of the people shall prevail."



Tennessee IMC: http://www.tnimc.org/