With the presidential election looming this year, voting is as important as ever. For Black History Month, Gena Gunn McClendon, director of CSD’s Voter Access and Engagement initiative, actively participated in numerous events to discuss voter suppression and the crucial importance of the black vote.
On Feb. 3, McClendon was interviewed on St. Louis on the Air for a segment titled “The Influence of the Black Vote, Then and Now.” “For some reason, people have a tendency to think that African Americans don’t vote. They do. They do by record numbers. But many times, that vote has been taken for granted,” McClendon said on the interview, which served as a pre-event to the next day’s event.
On Feb. 4, she participated in a panel discussion at the Missouri History Museum titled “Unflinching: The Power of the African American Vote.” Using the W.E.B. Dubois quote “The Power of the ballot we need in sheer defense, else what shall save us from a second slavery?” McClendon said, “This statement may seem dramatic, but when you think of the unprecedented number of voter laws passed in states in the last 10 years or the millions of dollars spent to suppress the vote, it isn’t a stretch to see what is happening in plain sight.”
“In the Missouri State Legislature there are more than 30 proposed bills to make significant changes making it harder to vote, prevent citizen led ballot petitions, redistricting and voter ID. In comparison, there are less than 5 that give Missouri citizens greater ability to vote in the state,” continued McClendon.
On Feb. 14 and 15, respectively, McClendon attended a student voter registration drive at University City High School, where 18 students registered to vote for the first time, and presented at a voter education talk at New Light Baptist Church.
On Feb. 22, McClendon participated in the St. Louis Public Library’s keynote Black History Month panel discussion “African Americans and the Vote.”
Moderated by Nina North Murphy, the panel included McClendon; Tishaura Jones, Treasurer of the City of St. Louis; Louise Wilkerson, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Metro St. Louis; and Michael Butler, Recorder of Deeds for the City of St. Louis.
When asked how the political landscape has changed in the past 20 years, Butler discussed how “everything has changed,” citing examples from social media to Donald Trump. “For a path to victory, we have to change along with it,” Butler said.
“We have lower turnout,” Jones said. “People don’t think voting is as important as it used to be. Even 20 years ago…voter turnout [in the City of St. Louis] was almost 50%, and now we’re lucky if we break 30%. Because of lower turnout, the win margins are much tighter.”
When asked about barriers preventing citizens from voting, McClendon first discussed the historical context: “Voting was not guaranteed by the Constitution, which created a scenario where African Americans weren’t considered full people,” further barring an entire population from voting. She discussed modern-day barriers, such as “felony disenfranchisement, voter ID laws, lack of early voting, and inequities in polling places,” as examples of racist policies in dire need of reform.
“The Shelby v. Holder supreme court ruling did incalculable damage to the right to vote,” Wilkerson said. “We have to continue to push for legislation that will repair the voting rights act. After that ruling, multiple states immediately implemented voter suppression laws…These current voter suppression efforts are akin to Jim Crow laws…We’re seeing that in Missouri now. And we have to keep fighting.”
In addition to these events, McClendon’s schedule for Black History month remained full. She presented at Bracy Chapel Christian Methodist Episcopal Church on Feb. 23, and attended policy discussions in Jefferson City on Feb. 25.
The last BHM event was at the University of Missouri-St. Louis as a panelist for the “African Americans and the Vote” event sponsored by political science, gender studies and student groups including Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated, of which Dr. McClendon is an active member. Panelists included Dr. David Kimball, a professor in UMSL’s Political Science department Harris Stowe Professor Andre Smith, PhD. The panelists discussed historic and current voter suppression, census participation and the upcoming presidential election after a viewing of “Suppressed.”
Reflecting on the importance of voting, McClendon said, “Efforts to suppress the vote have persisted for many years. While the tactics are different, the aim to disenfranchise blacks from voting remains unchanged. Celebrating Black History Month is a time not only to acknowledge the accomplishments and contributions by black Americans in this country and around the globe; it is a way to honor those who took extraordinary lengths including death to ensure that Blacks could participate in this democracy.”
For more information about McClendon’s research, read her recently published report, “Will I Be Able to Cast My Ballot? Race, Income, and Voting Access on Election Day.”