With Newt Gingrich bowing out of the GOP race for president, the 2012 election and an apparent showdown between President Obama and likely Republican nominee Mitt Romney is unfolding. And in an election year, the focus naturally turns to voters and participation in national, state and local elections.

During a recent Saturday morning at the Rainbow Push headquarters, the Rev. Jesse Jackson talked about voter registration and the tools now available to Blacks to make gains and to fight for their rights. The longtime civil rights leader stressed the need for the children of slaves to use every available tool to make a way for themselves. He pushed ensuring that every high school graduate should exit the stage with a diploma in one hand, a voter registration card in the other.

He questioned the value of civics courses that do not connect students with the functions of government that impact their lives, from school budgets, to student loans and jobs. He noted that Blacks lost their lives seeking to access the ballot and what was once a life-costing event can be dismissed as an inconvenience. He recalled how membership in the NAACP could once ruin careers and how such connections could end a teacher’s career.


The Rev. Jackson, whose 1984 run for the presidency changed the rules of the Democratic Party and inspired voters around the country, has made a significant impact on American politics and in the lives of Black and oppressed people. His words about voting power, the price paid for the franchise and the potential power of participating in the process are worthy of consideration.

He pointed to the case of Trayvon Martin and noted that registered voters serve on juries and would sit in judgment of his killer, George Zimmerman, if he goes to trial and could decide whether the prosecutor who failed to file any charges initially in the teen’s death should retain his office.

These points made by the Rev. Jackson are true but the reality is tools are only as good as the knowledge and skill of the one who wields the tool and the willingness of the person holding the tool to use it at all. So to have a voter card is one thing, to know how to effectively use the vote is something else. The use of the ballot box in making a choice presupposes knowledge of the process, the value of the process and even limitations to the process. It also suggests that the holder of the card understands self-interest and how to use the ballot to protect self-interest.

It presupposes that there is a real choice in the election process and there are candidates with the character and strength to represent their constituency in the face of strong opposition. The conservative Tea Party activists who have arisen and who had an impact on the 2010 congressional election are examples of strength and conviction–whether you agree with their stances or approve of their tactics. But after running on spending cuts and controlling debt, many of these lawmakers refused to vote for budget agreements and increasing the debt ceiling to allow the government to operate as usual. Whether their stance was foolhardy or wise is another discussion, but their stance was pretty clear and pretty much what was promised voters.

Those Tea Party darlings who are seen as moving away from principled positions are facing pressure while others in districts that include Democrats are scrambling to please voters on both sides. These political leaders are feeling heat and trying to respond to voters. That’s incentive to keep voters engaged in the process–they feel those elected are paying attention to their needs and desires.

Far too often, however, appeals to Black voters are based on sentimentality and style, so Bill Clinton could execute a Black man while running for the White House, then bludgeon poor people by tossing them off welfare without promised support for true self-sufficiency, increase prison numbers, authorize firing of missiles that destroyed a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, ignore murderous violence in Rwanda yet be proclaimed a friend of Black America.

Then there is the regular call to choose Satan or Beelzebub, when either way, our communities stay in hellish conditions.

Then strong Black candidates who balk at sending billions to Israel or stand a little too close to Min. Louis Farrakhan have found themselves under assault from donors outside their districts and media outlets inside their districts seeking to push them out of office.

Or weak politicians take office and refuse to stand up for Black constituents, fail to prosecute rouge cops and appoint Black police chiefs who offer the same old tired excuses as people suffer from the same old abuses.

Then on Election Day, workers will pound the pavements and often urge Blacks to go to the polls with the asinine declaration, “Just vote, it doesn’t matter who you vote for.”

Something is very wrong here.

“Some leaders in political positions have masters they have to please and it is not always the people that sent them into office. Sometimes we vote for people and do not understand the powers that start pulling on them. After we put them in office, in order to get things done, they need things and the people in power barter with them. It becomes a compromise between how they manage themselves and those who wield power over resources. Politics is so dirty because you cannot be all things to all people. When you are all things to all people, you are nothing to yourself and it is to yourself that you must be true,” observed Min. Farrakhan.

Min. Farrakhan has stressed the need for economic power to buttress political power and stressed the need for self-development in order for Black America to take advantage of every lever available in the battle to achieve freedom, justice and equality. He supported the Rev. Jackson in the 1984 presidential election and has consistently advocated for a Black political agenda and a Third Political Force to impact American politics.

It appears that these two men recognize the value of using available tools to achieve some gains. The trouble is the enemy of us all doesn’t like either man or anyone who advocates for Black progress and empowerment. They don’t like Rev. Jackson and they don’t like Min. Farrakhan. Period.

So if we have some common problems and some common enemies doesn’t it make sense to find some common ground? Doesn’t it make sense to form a Black United Front or at minimum practice the type of operational unity others employ to make some gains?

This election year will bring choices and our dire condition brings continued challenges, we cannot afford to let others decide who our leaders are and what is in our best interest. Despite the billions of dollars the U.S. gives to Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu clearly told America that Israel reserves the right to act in her best interest, regardless of U.S. wishes or concerns regarding attacks on Iran. If Israel can receive billions in U.S. aid and declare her independence, can those who receive nearly nothing do the same?

This election season it’s time to go further and dig deeper, it’s time to get beyond the sentimentality and the fear and to boldly strike out in our own interest based on our needs and desires. But that won’t happen without two indispensable elements: courage and unity. We need courage to define our own interests and the unity to achieve our goals. The Black masses aren’t likely to respond to slogans and symbols, they want solutions. And if our politics don’t bring solutions to problems, or seek solutions, does it make sense to participate? Every group acts in its own interest, isn’t it time Black folks do the same?