OpEd: Democracy Means Equal Access to Participate in Government, Elections

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I grew up in Hicksville, Long Island in a post-World War II 1950s world. Everyone in our neighborhood had large families, one car, and a finished basement. Our fathers and uncles served in the war and told stories about their tours in the Pacific and Europe. We knew of war shortages at home and suffering families who lost sons, brothers and fathers.

My Uncle Bud spent the war on the Santa Fe better known as the ‘Lucky Lady’ a light cruiser whose crew managed to save hundreds of sailors from the flaming, sinking aircraft carrier Franklin. Awarded two silver stars, he returned to Long Island, became a fireman and eventually a sand hog. We knew intimately about bravery and sacrifice for our country.

We kids rode buses to overcrowded schools and learned civic lessons about voting, government, patriotism, and the importance of our constitution. We had living, breathing examples of those values. We understood every family sacrificed for the rights we enjoyed. And we voted in elections because it was our constitutional right.

My father ran for elected office twice and we kids rode our bikes decorated with Hilly stickers, far and wide in support of his campaigns, returning home only when we heard the dinner bell ring. We drove to Roosevelt Field the day John F. Kennedy came to Long Island to campaign for President. And our dinner table was alive with dramatic debate every night about the possibility of the first Catholic president. Fairness was a topic that ran deep and wide in our family discussions. My parents thought it was good for us to debate and we agreed with gusto.

Later in my own career as a lawyer, I learned the bright glow of my childhood had hidden corners and dark secrets. The deeds to homes similar to ours in Hicksville, contained clauses that forbade selling to African Americans. And the GI bill, so valuable to my father’s post war studies failed to benefit African Americans as it did white Americans. It has been criticized for helping to increase racial economic disparities that remain today. Seriously underfunded schools in cities and dramatic poverty remind us today of our duty to our fellow Americans.

Fairness and equality so eloquently represented in our constitution, and the opportunity of education, and the right to vote enshrined in our laws, must be made true and real for all our citizens. Particularly those among us who have been denied what has been enjoyed by the rest of us.

Our responsibility as Americans is to make our democracy what it was intended to be: a living framework for fairness and equality. Civics education should be mandatory in our education systems to re-establish an understanding of the hard work and sacrifices made by our families today and by our forefathers in the past. This education should include and exalt the many heroic sacrifices and contributions made by African Americans and other minority people to our nation’s historic growth and development. The history of America need not be rewritten, it need only be written honestly, completely, and fairly.

We must work to ensure every election is fair, and that every American in every community has the right to vote. By mail, on weekends, and without unnecessary or unfounded blockades. We have an obligation to speak out about inequities we see, and protest unfairness we find in our communities. In other words, we must become active, involved citizens contributing our voices to the development of our republic if we are to save it.

The era of digital media clicks has made us armchair observers of what looked like democracy, but was actually its poor cousin. Sitting and clicking is not the road to a more just society. Participation in democracy makes us all better informed and our republic healthier.

Growing up I knew what party my family voted for but never knew anything about the party affiliation of any of our neighbors, family or friends. We all just trusted that when we voted we all had the best interest of our country at heart. I want to have that same confidence today, to trust that we will all do what is right for our country. We cannot remain silent or click our way to a better future. We must act to make the changes we want to see. And vote.

Jackie Hilly Is a member of Seniors Taking Action, a group of activists who believe that political engagement is essential if democracy is to flourish.

This oped first appeared on amNY.com.

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