MIAMI GARDENS — Renowned law professor Charles J. Ogletree Jr. once taught President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama at Harvard University.
On Saturday, Florida Memorial University became his classroom as hundreds of residents and students learned about the hard-fought struggle to gain the right to vote. They also were told to be vigilant about protecting that right for current and future generations.
“The barriers are there but we must find ways to overcome them and keep the door open,” Ogletree said.
The four-hour “Voting Rights Teach-In,” at the Lou Rawls Center for the Performing Arts at FMU’s Miami Gardens campus, was co-sponsored by the historically black university and the Harvard Black Alumni Society of South Florida. The group, which invited Ogletree for the session, has about 60 members, many of whom were in the audience.
The goal was not only an educational and informational catalyst but an effort to get people registered to vote and out to the polls in November, said FMU President Henry Lewis III.
“This forum is about educating this community, preparing the citizens and making sure they understand the challenges that face us,” Lewis said.
The challenges have been difficult and persistent, said Ogletree, the keynote speaker on the four-hour panel which included Penelope Townsley, Miami-Dade County’s first black female elections supervisor, FMU history professor Tameka Hobbs and student body president Christian Johnson.
After slavery, 67 percent of Florida’s black residents were
registered to vote during the Reconstruction era, when some blacks were elected to Congress, Hobbs said. By 1892, the number had dropped to 11 percent because of a concerted effort by whites to keep blacks out of political power, he said.
The dangers were life-threatening, Hobbs said, citing a Ku Klux Klan poster that circulated in 1920 in Miami: “…Every Negro who approaches the polling place next Tuesday will be a marked man. This is a white man’s country, boys. Save your own life next Tuesday.”
KKK threats, poll taxes and literacy tests have been updated to continue to keep black voters away from the polls, Ogletree said. Current challenges include legislation in several states that limit the number of days for early voting and require voters to provide picture IDs at polling stations. Additionally, some Election Day tactics seek to mislead and intimidate blacks from going to the polls, he said.
Typically, information is distributed in minority neighborhoods to mislead people as to when exactly is Election Day. Other tactics include late afternoon announcements that there is no need to vote because the election already has been decided. Even more chilling and intimidating are rumors that police are checking IDs at the polling stations.
Such falsehoods are astonishing, said Townsley, who emphasized that anyone who wants to vote should be able to and can through a variety of voting provisions, including early voting and absentee ballots.
“It is important to know that the only individual who can prohibit you from voting is you — if you allow it,” Townsley said.
The greatest challenge is getting citizens to come out and vote, Townsley said, referring to low voter turnout during the August primaries.
FMU’s student body president Johnson concurred. Getting students interested in voting is difficult, he said, adding that less than 25 percent of FMU students voted in the past student government election.
The forum spurred some to take the first step. FMU students, assisted by members of the Miami-Dade NAACP branch, helped 22 people register to vote, said branch President Bradford Brown.
And the effort must continue beyond this election, Lewis said. “It is important to make sure that the opportunities you have are passed on to the generation behind you,” he said.
• Tuesday, Oct. 9 — Last day to register to vote for the Nov. 6 general election.
• Thursday, Oct. 25 — Last day to update signature on voter registration card.
• Wednesday, Oct. 31 — Last day to request an absentee ballot
• Saturday, Oct. 27 through Saturday, Nov. 3, 7 a.m. 7 p.m. — Early voting: There are 20 early voting locations throughout Miami-Dade County and 17 in Broward. Palm Beach will announce its locations during the first week of October.
• Tuesday, Nov. 6 — General Election: Vote in person at your assigned precinct. Polls will be open 7 a.m.-7 p.m.
Supervisor of Elections Websites:
Broward Supervisor of Elections
Miami-Dade Supervisor of Elections
Palm Beach Supervisor of Elections