‘Give Us the Ballot’

The Dallas Examiner

On May 17, 1957, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the speech, Give Us the Ballot, during the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom gathering at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. He advocated that if Negroes were given the ballot, they would not have to ask the federal government to solve their problems because they would be able to solve them themselves.

As detailed in The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Volume IV: Symbol of the Movement:

Hoping to prod the federal government to fulfill the promise of the 3-year-old Brown v. Board of Education decision, national civil rights leaders called for a rally on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Bayard Rustin, Ella Baker and Stanley Levison organized the Prayer Pilgrimage, which brought together Co-Chairmen A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins and King, along with a host of prominent civil rights supporters, including Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Fred Shuttlesworth, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson and entertainer Harry Belafonte. Thomas Kilgore of Friendship Baptist Church in New York served as national director of the Pilgrimage. Some 20,000 people listened to three hours of speeches, music and testimony from Southern activists.

Speaking last, King exhorts the president and members of Congress to ensure voting rights for African Americans and indicts both political parties for betraying the cause of justice: “The Democrats have betrayed it by capitulating to the prejudices and undemocratic practices of the Southern Dixiecrats. The Republicans have betrayed it by capitulating to the blatant hypocrisy of right-wing, reactionary Northerners. These men so often have a high blood pressure of words and an anemia of deeds.”

Give Us the Ballot speech:

Mr. Chairman, distinguished platform associates, fellow Americans: Three years ago, the Supreme Court of this nation rendered in simple, eloquent and unequivocal language a decision which will long be stenciled on the mental sheets of succeeding generations. For all men of goodwill, this May seventeenth decision came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of human captivity. It came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of disinherited people throughout the world who had dared only to dream of freedom. Unfortunately, this noble and sublime decision has not gone without opposition. This opposition has often risen to ominous proportions. Many states have risen up in open defiance. The legislative halls of the South ring loud with such words as “interposition” and “nullification.” But even more, all types of conniving methods are still being used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters. The denial of this sacred right is a tragic betrayal of the highest mandates of our democratic tradition. And so our most urgent request to the president of the United States and every member of Congress is to give us the right to vote. [Audience: Yes.]

Give us the ballot, and we will no longer have to worry the federal government about our basic rights.

Give us the ballot, and we will no longer plead to the federal government for passage of an anti-lynching law; we will by the power of our vote write the law on the statute books of the South and bring an end to the dastardly acts of the hooded perpetrators of violence.

Give us the ballot [Audience: Give us the ballot], and we will transform the salient misdeeds of bloodthirsty mobs into the calculated good deeds of orderly citizens.

Give us the ballot [Audience: Give us the ballot], and we will fill our legislative halls with men of goodwill and send to the sacred halls of Congress men who will not sign a “Southern Manifesto” because of their devotion to the manifesto of justice.

Give us the ballot, and we will place judges on the benches of the South who will do justly and love mercy, and we will place at the head of the Southern states governors who will, who have felt not only the tang of the human, but the glow of the Divine.

Give us the ballot, and we will quietly and nonviolently, without rancor or bitterness, implement the Supreme Court’s decision of May seventeenth, 1954.

At the time of this speech, we were fighting against many injustices – the right to vote being one of them.

We have made many gains since King’s speech, but we still have a long way to go.

Many sacrifices have been made so that we can vote.

I remember a student from Dallas, Leiwanda Kayrette Jordan. At the time, we only had three high schools in Dallas that Negroes could attend – Booker T. Washington, Lincoln and Madison. Jordan attended Booker T. Washington and graduated in 1959. She was only 16 when she graduated.

Afterward, her parents, Dr. Frank Jordan and Julia Jordan, sent her to Fisk University. Located in Nashville, Tennessee, it’s one of our Historically Black Colleges. Her father was a local physician, and her mother was a teacher and counselor at Dallas ISD.

At Fisk, Kayrette Jordan joined the Nashville Student Movement, an organization that challenged racial segregation during the Civil Rights Movement. This organization was created during workshops in nonviolence taught by James Lawson. The students from this organization initiated the Nashville sit-ins in 1960.

She participated in sit-ins at lunch counters in Nashville and was arrested several times. Because of her young age, she was sent to a juvenile detention center. Her parents immediately got her out.

Julia Jordan – who is now deceased – shared with me that she and her husband were told by the authorities in Nashville that if they did not stop their daughter from protesting, they would put her somewhere where they could not get her out.

Jordan said she asked her daughter why she continued to protest – though they continued to get her out of the detention center, she would go back to protesting and get arrested again. Her response was, “I am doing this for generations not yet born.”

Her parents finally had to send her to California to live with a relative to stop her from protesting. Kayrette Jordan died with scars on her back from cigar and cigarette butt burns that she sustained while she was sitting-in at lunch counters in Nashville.

Today, we have the ballot due to the efforts of all those willing to protest against injustice.

Kayrette’s story is only one of many students. Many lost their lives in the movement. Many have sacrificed so we can vote.

We must vote to ensure that we do not lose the gains we have achieved.

Until recently, we could not obtain health insurance if we had a pre-existing condition, or if we had pre-existing conditions the insurance was very high and not affordable for most people. Efforts are being made to limit the protection of people with pre-existing conditions.

We must ensure that we have accessible and affordable health care for everyone, a fair judicial system for everyone, the opportunity for every child to have a good education, a fair and livable minimum wage, and that institutional racism no longer exists.

We have not always been able to vote in order to elect people to office who will represent our interests, and it is not guaranteed that we will always be able to do so.

Be sure to vote during early election, now through Nov. 2, or on Election Day, Nov 6.

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