Black Lives Won’t Matter If YOU Don’t Vote

By Roger Kahn

After Richard Nixon’s 1968 election, I pessimistically feared that many of the important gains made in the 1960s by the Civil Rights Movement, although limited, would be set back.  Over the next decades, unfortunately, my fears became reality. 

My involvement in the movement began in 1962, when I volunteered for a Civil Rights Leadership Training Institute in Houston, Texas. By 1965, I was a professional community organizer, and then, a research director in national African-American-led organizations. In the ‘70s, I led an advocacy organization that focused on Communities of Color, the environment, organized labor, and energy policy. Beginning in the 1980s, I taught leaders and managers in a wide variety of nonprofit organizations to effectively attain their organization’s objectives.

During 2020, the resurgence of social activism, following the brutal murders of Black men at the hands of vigilantes and police, has once again made me hopeful. Today’s social activism is broader and deeper than it was in my formative movement years. Today, protesters are of all ages, sexual identities, races, and from hundreds of cities and towns across the country.

This new activism, especially the Black Lives Matter movement, makes me think about some of the errors we made in the 1960s. Those mistakes paved the way for Nixon to win the election. Three lessons stand out.

First, because some people became frustrated at the slow pace of progress, they pivoted away from nonviolence to violence. Second, others let the ideal become the enemy of the good. Last, and most importantly, people failed to vote. 

In this 2020 election, voting must be seen as the ultimate form of mass protest.  We all must vote, and given the current attempts to suppress turnout, vote early.

Black lives won’t matter if YOU don’t vote. 

African Americans and other people of color have always been victimized by the American judicial system – the police, the courts, and the prisons. And decades ago, from 1964 through the summer of 1967, police abuse became the catalyst for hundreds of urban uprisings in African-American communities. Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Los Angeles, Newark, and New York serve as examples.

One of America’s impotent establishment responses to the urban uprisings was a so-called study in 1967, “to investigate the causes of a recent outbreak of race riots, with a particular focus on the 1967 Detroit riots.” The report concluded the causes were: “a lack of economic opportunity … failed housing, education, and social service policies.” Although the report’s recommendations included the hiring of “more diverse and sensitive police forces,” police disrespect and brutality was not considered a major cause of the uprisings.

During those same years, increased frustration that social change was not happening fast enough led to the Civil Rights Movement morphing into the Black Power Movement. A growing sense of Black Nationalism coupled with irritation that even the white activists could not recognize their own racism. 

For example, in 1966, the chairmanship of the In SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) passed from John Lewis, the nonviolent, integrationist, quiet-spoken advocate for participatory democracy to the fiery Stokely Carmichael, who coined the term Black Power. He said that Black people should use “any means necessary,” including taking up arms, to attain justice. He also thought white people should be limited to supporting roles. The tactic of nonviolence was increasingly questioned and Black leadership was also emphasized in CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) chapters across the country. Similarly, in SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), white activists transitioned from a belief in nonviolence and community organizing to the formation of “revolutionary cadres” using para-military means.

These transitions were serious mistakes because the vast majority of citizens, including civil rights supporters, were turned off to violent tactics.

Despite voter registration efforts in the South, and the formation of the Freedom Democratic Party in Mississippi, few attempts to translate the protests into politics, especially in the North, happened. Activists did not want to get involved in political processes. They were moving toward greater militancy, and the idea of political participation fell mostly on deaf ears.

The response with the longest lasting impact was the 1968 election of President Richard Nixon. He ran on a States Rights platform, opposed the protests and demonstrators, and supported the nation’s police; he was the “law and order” candidate. Nixon mobilized the silent majority, especially suburbanites and white Southerners who were increasingly threatened by the societal disruptions. They yearned for the good old days: “the American way of life.”  Sound familiar? 

Other reasons for Nixon’s win are instructive. Many registered voters were turned off to electoral politics, and favored more radical means for making change.  Some thought the Democratic Presidential nominee, Hubert Humphrey, was too moderate. Because he was not up to their ideal, they discounted him completely. On election day, they stayed home. Others, who had campaigned passionately in the primaries for the more progressive peace and social justice candidates, Sen. Eugene McCarthy and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, were angry that Humphrey got the nomination through a brokered national convention. They did cast ballots, but voted for third-party candidates or wrote in the names of people they preferred.  All of those votes, essentially, were votes for Nixon. Today, we must learn our lessons from those errors, and other close presidential races lost because electors did not vote or voted for third-party candidates, such as Ralph Nader in 2000 when Gore lost to Bush. 

This time, we must be sure we don’t make a perfect (non-existent) ideal the enemy of what is a dramatic improvement compared to Trump. Though he is far from perfect, Biden, is the one candidate who is now the only option available to us.  I heard an avid Bernie Sanders supporter say he will reluctantly “vote blue in spite of who”.  With Biden’s selection of Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate – who may well become his presidential successor – he has already begun taking more progressive positions than previously. Moreover, if we continue to mobilize and demonstrate after he is President, Biden will move further in a positive direction. He is, of course, a political animal.

Notably, under conservative presidents, right-wing movements and policies flourish. In Nixon’s first term, the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA) was created, and police departments across the country developed war rooms and got military equipment to suppress domestic rebellions. The current administration’s practice of not so subtlety supporting racism, the widespread attempts at voter suppression, as well as the economic gains of the extraordinarily wealthy and the increasing gap between them and us are consequences of a conservative presidency. 

During liberal presidencies, by contrast, policies that focus on improving our common good move forward.  Martin Luther King, Jr.’s observation that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” might be modified by adding, “and in the United States, under progressive Presidents.”

Under Franklin Roosevelt, a host of job programs were created and social safety net programs like Social Security were started. In the 1960s, under John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, anti-poverty programs were established, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were enacted, and the beginnings of important environmental protection laws were passed.

Under Trump, civil and voting rights are being suppressed, police departments are being increasingly militarized, and paramilitary forces are being activated.  Environmental laws are being neutered, and he is trying to weaken established social safety net programs like Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare. He is even refusing to fund the United States Postal Service, saying he does not want it to be able to handle widespread mail-in voting! 

There are big differences between the two 2020 presidential candidates on all the important issues, and even if Biden is not as perfect as we might like him to be, he must be supported.

So now what?

We must vote. We must contact our state election offices and get an early ballot. Further, we must vote for the Democratic nominee, Joe Biden. We cannot abstain or waste our ballot by writing in anyone else’s name. Either way it would be a vote for Trump and he must not get our votes

Black lives won’t matter if YOU don’t vote.

During Nixon’s reign, prisons, in which people of color are the great majority, became the new sites for almost a dozen uprisings. The Attica Prison Rebellion of 1971, when 30 inmates and 10 prison guards were killed, was the most well-known. Rightfully, these uprisings made correction officers fearful for their lives.

Following Attica, the New York City Department of Corrections asked the NUL (National Urban League) office to develop an intensive “human relations training program” for a broad cross-section of the department’s 14,000 plus correction officers and administrators. The league conducted “anti-racism training” sessions for groups of administrators, long-time correction officers, mid-timers, and new recruits. In comparing the attitudes of correction officers who received training to similar groups who did not, the training showed positive results. 

Six months later, the correction officers’ attitudes were tested again. The NUL hoped the results would show that the anti-racism initiative permanently changed guards’ attitudes toward inmates. Unfortunately, absolutely no difference between the trained and untrained officers remained. The positive short-term effects were erased completely within a half year of on-the-job prison work. The prison culture determined employees’ attitudes and behaviors.

To make long- term structural change throughout the entire judicial system, new organizational cultures have to be created. To do that, lawmakers have to be elected who will change laws and restructure criminal justice organizations.

Black lives won’t matter if YOU don’t vote.

During the last half-century, especially in Black and brown communities, citizens continued to be demeaned, abused and killed by police. Citizens responded by calling for the creation of various types of local boards to investigate allegations of police misconduct and oversee police departments. Establishing them was seen as the way to stop police misconduct. Regrettably, that was and is incorrect.

Police almost always oppose these oversight mechanisms, and dilute their strength even before they began. Further, once those boards were established, police officers testified in support of their peers in cases of alleged abuse. They said that each act of misconduct was actually necessary, the “justified use of force” argument. Police were not prosecuted, even for unmitigated murder. As with prisons, police organizational culture determines behavior, even when police are accused of murdering innocent civilians. 

Police and their unions or associations comprise a powerful lobby, and police vote! Few municipal political candidates want to alienate them, and elected officials have easily ignored bad police behavior even where oversight commissions exist, because voting has not been seen as an additional form of protest by those most disrespected and abused. Consequently, police misconduct continues.

If we want to make police and other aspects of the criminal justice system responsive to communities of color, and progress on a host of social, economic, environmental, and international issues, Trump must not be re-elected. Even our very survival as a democracy could depend on ousting him.

On his deathbed, the late Congressman John R. Lewis, said to an old friend, “Everybody must vote in November. It is the most important election ever.”

Black lives won’t matter if YOU don’t vote.

Editor’s note: Roger Kahn was a community organizer and a professor. Currently, he is a small business owner and author. You can contact him at To find out about his book, go to