Rufus Straughter's warm, intelligent brown eyes peered at me across the polished surface of the table where we sat under the soaring ceiling of the state capital. Seeming inordinately large on my little white recorder, a pin-point red light signaled that I would not mistake his words later.
At first, Straughter, a small-boned, trim man, chose his soft words carefully. His precise language defined him as clearly as his tailored gray suit and silk tie, his grizzled, close-cropped hair and gold-framed glasses.
That day a couple of weeks ago, we talked about the importance of education in Mississippi. I'm about as white as Straughter is black--a good reason for his caution. At 75, Straughter knows what it's like to live in a violently repressive society. He grew up in a place where people who look like me tried to crush the spirit, and often the life, out of people who look like him. His shoulders visibly relaxed after I told him about my parents who grew up in another infamously tyrannical era: 1930s Europe during the rise of Nazi Germany. Our families' histories, converging as they do in brutality, allowed Straughter to trust me, I think.
In 1960, Straughter's father let two of his eight sons to take his 1959, dark green Chrysler Saratoga for a ride. Straughter and his brother were walking from a store back to the car when a woman--a white woman--called after them. Straughter kept walking. Their father and practical reality had taught Straughter and his 13 siblings to walk away when white people, especially white women, tried to talk to them. Just five years earlier, two boys fishing in the Tallahatchie River discovered Emmett Till's drowned and tortured body. Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam murdered 14-year-old Till for supposedly flirting with Bryant's wife, Carolyn--a white woman--at Bryant's Grocery and Meat Market in Money, Miss. A jury acquitted Bryant and Milam; they later confessed to the murder in an interview with Look magazine.
The year 1960 was too soon for the blacks to snub white women in Mississippi. Someone complained that the Straughters had cussed out the woman they tried to ignore, though neither had said a word. Someone else said Straughter's brother was waving a gun. The deputy sheriff arrested them. Authorities released the young men after some rough questioning. The incident left an indelible scar on Straughter's soul. Maybe, even in 2013, I was another white woman who would misrepresent him.
A few weeks earlier, I was speaking with a political pollster. I asked for his opinion on why so few Americans show up at the polls. He confirmed what I already knew: People don't believe their votes count. He cited the Electoral College, which serves to define sharply the divide between red states and blue states.
For a while, I didn't connect the two disparate conversations. But they are connected. The Civil Rights Movement was all about gaining equality for African Americans. Key among the rights people fought and died for is the right to vote. I find it insidious that so many Americans believe it doesn't matter. But I admit: I thought about skipping the trip to the polls last November. More than any other motivation, I knew I wouldn't be able to face my colleagues without an "I voted" sticker Wednesday morning. "If you don't vote, you can't complain," was ringing in my head as I drove to my precinct just in time to cast my ballot after a long day getting the JFP to press that Tuesday.
But voting matters more than having the right to criticize. Perhaps it matters more than a black man's freedom to speak openly to--maybe even disparage--a white woman in Mississippi. It matters because the rights depend on each other. I can't think of another right that is more pivotal to the creation of a free society than having a voice in its leadership. The voices of our leaders must be our voices, or the entire system breaks down. It's easy to see why attempts to limit votes are never-ending.
Voter turnout for municipal and state elections is even lower than for national elections. But local leadership decisions affect us more directly and immediately than the indecision inside the Capital Beltway in Washington, D.C. Funding for our children's education, the subject of my conversation with Straughter at the Mississippi Capitol in March, isn't dependent on the president or even the Congress. To the contrary, and with all due respect, a former Hinds County deputy sheriff (Gov. Phil Bryant), a bean counter from Florence (Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves) and a lawyer from Clinton (House Speaker Phillip Gunn) will largely shape whether our children will get adequate educations in Mississippi. A strong steel cable links our votes, or our lack of votes, directly to the outcomes for our children.
Today, Straughter is a state representative. He entered politics after teaching math for 25 years in Humphries County in the Mississippi Delta. More than most of us, he understands the power of each American's vote. With an MBA from Jackson State, Straughter wanted to be an accountant, like Reeves, but knew no one would hire a black accountant back then--the people with the money in 1960s Mississippi usually didn't look like him.
Individual voting voices have changed life for many African Americans since then, though not nearly enough. Voting voices changed the outcomes for working people, for women and children and disabled people. And--don't blink--they will transform the lives of millions in the LGBT community when (not if) America grants them equal rights.
Next month, voters in Jackson will decide the slate of men and women who will ostensibly work for their interests on the streets of the city. Whether you believe the current administration and city council is doing a good job or a bad job, the future belongs to those who get off the couch and vote. More than that, it will belong to the people who participate in council and school board meetings, who show up for community association meetings and all those other "boring" machinations of our democratic society.
Democracy isn't some complicated and difficult hypothetical. Democracy is people, and the people are us.
Civil-rights icon and Georgia Congressman John Lewis is fond of saying, "When you pray, move your feet." It's never enough to hope things will get better; our actions make the difference. Move your feet.