This election is the most crucial one since I registered to vote a few days after my 18th birthday, in February 1982. As a child of the South, born in Alabama in a crucial period of the civil rights era, I have a sense that I was born not just to vote but to fight for all of God’s children — including and especially those known, because of racial, economic, educational and health disparities, as “the least of these.”
At 9 years old, I read Dr. King’s Letter From the Birmingham Jail. It was that letter, and speeches like his “Give Us The Ballot,” coupled with my mother’s stories about being jailed and assaulted while registering people to vote in Selma, Ala., that have shaped me. My mother, the late Carrie Thelma Jefferson, was a volunteer voter’s rights worker. Our hometown of Demopolis, Ala., is 49 miles west of Selma, and my mother was in Selma before, during, and after “Bloody Sunday.” She left this earth with a scar on her thigh that was the result of being assaulted by policeman who used a nightstick to attempt to deter her efforts.
I grew up with an understanding that voting was a right that was earned by my mother’s blood, sweat, and tears, and that voting honored that legacy. Over the years, I have volunteered at the polls, worked as an election judge, registered hundreds of people, and driven people to the polls. I have always known that as a person of color, much was at stake. But it has been in the last two years that my heritage and the ethos of those experiences have guided me in profound ways.
Admittedly, as a child my mom’s stories seemed irrelevant to my future. But my encounters in Ferguson with tear gas, tanks, and officers of the law in riot gear were poignant reminders that “then” and “now” are connected by a racist system that is designed to leave out the “least of these.”
The “Ferguson effect” has not just resulted in an increase of political will among black people, but also a desire for an increase of political control from those who are intimidated and fearful of the acts of resistance they have seen as black people rise in political leadership and civic engagement. The sheep and the goat, more so than the donkey and the elephant, are emblematic of this year’s election across the nation and in Missouri. If Jesus suggests that to be a sheep means to follow the template of justice and mercy as laid out in Matthew 25:31-46, then being a goat means to act contrary to it.
Missouri is the latest state to be invaded by legislative goats.
There are goats attempting to implement plans that are contrary to justice and that seek to leave out the “least of these.” In Missouri, we are fighting Amendment 6, a ballot measure that will appear on the Nov. 8 ballot. It asks voters to decide whether they want voter protection taken out of our constitution, so the goats can implement stringent photo ID laws.
According to Denise Lieberman, “If passed by voters in November, Amendment 6 would clear the path for lawmakers to erect onerous barriers to the ballot box — like photo ID — in a nefarious attempt to reduce the influence of black voters who have begun building political power in the aftermath of the Ferguson Uprisings.”
Missouri Secretary of State, Jason Kander has said that if passed, more than 220, 000 Missourians will be disenfranchised. Included in this group are the elderly, the disabled, the formerly incarcerated, students, and people of color — “the least of these.”
As a pastor in a historically black church, Quinn Chapel A.M.E. Church in Jefferson City, and the Executive Director of Missouri Faith Voices, a PICO federation, I say this attempt to silence and disenfranchise voters is contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ. When I interpret Matthew 25, it is not merely about providing food, clothes, and hospitality — it is about transforming systems that have caused people to be left out.
As a shepherd, my role is to protect the sheep. I am working feverishly throughout the state by organizing phone banks and canvasses within congregations to protect the most vulnerable citizens in this state and to be able to answer Jesus when he says, “When I tried to vote did you bar my access or give me equal opportunity?”