Too many have sacrificed too much for us to sit on the sidelines on Election Day

November 3, 2020 12:01 am

Bradley Beal marches to the MLK Memorial to support Black Lives Matter and to mark the liberation of slavery on June 19, 2020 in Washington, DC. Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when a Union general read orders in Galveston, Texas stating all enslaved people in Texas were free according to federal law. (Photo by Michael A. McCoy/Getty Images)

NBA superstar Bradley Beal and other Black players say they’re voting – for the very first time – in this year’s presidential election. The Washington Wizards shooting guard thus joined colleagues who are finally heading to the polls today, or who voted early in their respective states.

I’m encouraged by the move, but also incensed that any African American would ever sit on the bench — no matter their occupation. Voting must be personal for anyone who looks like me, in federal contests all the way down to the local level.

Maybe these athletes never learned the history of our ancestors’ fight to vote in America, including the beatings and murders that accompanied it. Still, that’s a lousy excuse, especially at a time when you can easily do research on the internet, or talk to older relatives who lived through the violent past.

Beal told The Undefeated he previously didn’t like to speak out about politics because he feared being singled out by zealots. But as a father of two boys, and given the social upheaval nationwide following the police killings of Black men and women, Beal changed his mind. 

“I’ve been looking into the history of my family, my grandparents and learning about the struggles they had in gaining the right to vote,” he said. 

It means Beal, now 27, didn’t even vote in 2012 when Barack Obama, the nation’s first Black president, ran for re-election. That’s incredible. 

Beal, to his credit, helped lead a peaceful protest march this year in Washington commemorating Juneteenth. The NBA also urged more of its players to register to vote. Registration was up to 96 percent of eligible citizens in the league by mid-October, according to a report

The National Basketball Players Association said just 22 percent of NBA players voted in the 2016 election. That’s pathetic. Nearly 80 percent of NBA players are Black, by the way.

Among the prominent NBA personalities who are finally casting ballots: Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal. Shaq said on his podcast last month: “I voted for the first time, and it feels good.” He did so after helping the campaigns of local officials. But at 48, he’s decades late to the conversion. 

In fairness, I have to give the league and its players some props. NBA and WNBA players have been in the forefront in speaking out against racial injustice. NBA players forced a postponement of playoff games in August following the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis. A quarter of a million dollars from a jersey auction has been allocated to 18 groups working to increase voter turnout and combat voter suppression. NBA arenas and facilities are also being used as voting centers.

Beal, the Wizards’ best player, wrote an Instagram post to his (not insubstantial) 1.1 million followers 100 days before the election, highlighting the countdown. Yet, I’m stunned it took so long for his civic enlightenment.

Beal should talk to 97-year-old Mabel Hairston, a Black woman who lives in Prince William County and was the subject of a recent news report. She grew up in Martinsville during Jim Crow, had to pay poll taxes and faced tests on the U.S. Constitution just to cast a ballot. Hairston has voted religiously since the 1940s, partly because that right was denied to her mother and grandmother. 

 “I wanted the privilege to vote because I knew the importance of it,” she said. 

Then, after the NBA finally returns to a regular schedule and a COVID-19 vaccine is available, Beal should plan an extended trip when the Wizards play in Atlanta. He should take a 160-mile detour – and invite some teammates on the journey, too.

Montgomery, Ala., is home to the Civil Rights Memorial Center, which I visited with my oldest daughter a half-dozen years ago. A circular, watery, granite artwork designed by Maya Lin sits out front, with the center itself in the rear. Beal would learn, among those resources, the names of individuals who sacrificed their lives while fighting for African-American enfranchisement. 

I didn’t know all of them before that visit. But I certainly knew the overall struggle, and what many people risked to make it easier for those who followed. (It’s part of why I began voting in 1980 and refuse to skip elections.)

They were people like the Rev. George Lee of Belzoni, Miss. He helped start a NAACP chapter, led meetings and urged Blacks to register to vote and pay the poll tax in the mid-1950s. A White Citizens Council fought back. In May 1955, while driving home, Lee was fatally shot by someone in a passing car.

Jonathan Daniels was a White Episcopal seminary student in Boston who went to Alabama in 1965 to help with Black voter registration. He was arrested at a demonstration, jailed and then released. Moments later, a deputy sheriff shot and killed Daniels.

There’s Vernon Dahmer of Hattiesburg, Miss., a successful businessman who offered to pay poll taxes for residents in the months after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 became law.  That enraged the Ku Klux Klan. 

The Dahmer home was firebombed in January 1966, and gunshots rang out. Dahmer returned fire, giving his family time to flee, but he suffered smoke inhalation and lung damage. He died shortly afterward. 

There are countless others whose stories may never be told, yet faced the same fate as Lee, Daniels and Dahmer. They knew the law wouldn’t protect them, but they fought for equality anyway.

Today, Black and brown voters face tactics less lethal but that are often racially biased: Photo IDs, which disproportionately affect people of color. The closing of polling places. Purges of voter rolls. 

So I hope this is merely the start of voting activism by Beal and others. They should continue to raise their voices. 

The wonder is they were so apathetic for so long, given all the blood that’s been spilled.

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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]