It’s that time of year again in Charleston. The sweet spot after the summer swelter has passed and the hurricanes have blown through, before the bite of our short winter hits. We’ve been drawn out of doors by the weather, rolled up our shirt sleeves to take in the finery of fall. And it’s that time of year again in the United States. The moment that arrives every fourth fall, after the long slog of electoral politics relents, and we line up at the polls to cast our votes once and for all. I’ve been looking forward to it, and since the forecast looks favorable, I’ve even got my T-shirt laid out. It’s a soft cotton shirt that I bought from a local guy who screen prints them one at a time, and it bears the simple message: Black Lives Matter.
I suppose some would consider the shirt to be a partisan one, and it is. It declares my allegiance to the freedom struggle. That struggle is arguably the proudest movement in American history, stretched down through the years and deeply concerned with the right to vote.
Earlier this year I was able to visit Medgar Evers’ home in Jackson, Mississippi. Evers was a civil rights worker who fought segregation and worked to register black voters so their voices could be heard at the polls. He was shot down in the carport of his home after returning from a late evening of organizing. On my trip, a group of pilgrims from Charleston stood in that carport and heard stories about Medgar Evers, along with others, like James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner, who had come to Mississippi and were martyred for their attempts to register voters. We sang freedom songs at Medgar’s home. I looked around and saw every eye glistening, a combination of American pride and Southern sadness. When we climbed onto the bus to leave, I looked back at the house, at our history, and at our heroes. They never gave in to cynicism or despair.
It is with Evers, Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner in mind that I’ll pull on my Black Lives Matter T-shirt and head to the polls this year. Because if they were here they’d be wearing the same thing. In their time, just as ours, the African-American vote was intimidated and suppressed. Black lives were undervalued and expendable. Black schools and neighborhoods were not invested in equally. Black citizens were not treated the same by the courts or the police. Medgar Evers knew all of that and had experienced it himself. That was why he was working so hard to make sure the community had a voice. When we go to the polls, we should remember him and the causes for which he fought. And we should do something else.
Professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor warns us that electoral politics alone may not be good for democracy. By this she means that investing all of our time and energy into a single vote that we cast every four years isn’t enough. Real democracy, real citizenship, is a daily engagement in the work of the community. Not only should we wear our Black Lives Matter T-shirts to the polling booth, we should wear them to the school board, the city council, the neighborhood meeting, the farmers market. Casting our votes, of course, is vital. But we cast our votes in more ways than one, raising our voices and our concerns in every week and season, T-shirt weather or not.
Regular engagement is the work of democracy. It resists the cynicism of the news cycle and the Twitter wars to get deeply into the creative work of making this country what we want it to be. Democracy is, as Walt Whitman said, such a great word because its history remains unwritten and has yet to be enacted. It’s a good word for us in Charleston, too. We are a city whose long history is still being written. Even as we line up at the polls, we watch the news about the trials of Michael Slager and Dylan Roof. We remember Medgar Evers, and we also remember Walter Scott, the Emanuel Nine, and the countless others who were never offered the full promise of citizenship in the Lowcountry. We know we have work to do, work that will take more than a one-time trip to the voting booth.
Even so, I can’t wait to slip into my freedom shirt and walk down to the polls. I’ll do so in gratitude for all who struggled before and with an awareness that casting my vote isn’t the end, it’s just the beginning.
Jeremy Rutledge is a writer and pastor of Circular Congregational Church downtown.