I remember sitting on my grandfather’s shoulders on Mother’s Day 1966 as he waited to get a glimpse of Martin Luther King Jr. It was a rainy day in Kingstree, my hometown, but the showers that fell on Tomlinson High School’s football field didn’t dampen the spirits or discourage the crowd gathered to hear the young, charismatic preacher speak.
It was wet, muddy and shoulder-to-shoulder, but 5,000 of us waited.
I had no idea who Dr. King was, only that there was palpable excitement and anticipation. As a 4-year-old, I was eager to be a part of such energy. We were all well-aware that this was a momentous occasion, that visitors like Dr. King seldom found their way to small, rural Kingstree.
Once the rain stopped and Dr. King was at the podium, he gave a rousing speech, encouraging the thousands gathered to “see what power you can be.” His stop in Kingstree was part of his crusade to help African-American voters overcome a fear of voting and encourage them to register to vote. “Let us march on the ballot boxes,” he thundered, asking us to make sure all of our friends and family registered and then to take on “another, even greater responsibility, and that is to go out and vote.”
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Learn more about Kingstree’s 50th anniversary commemoration planned for May 8
Inspiring and energizing, the historic “March on Ballot Boxes” speech was also significant. Dr. King gave only three public speeches in South Carolina, and his visit to Kingstree came just months after he’d played a big part in helping President Lyndon Johnson pass the Voting Rights Act. The new law would allow most of Kingstree’s citizens to vote, and President Johnson called it “a triumph for freedom as huge as any victory that has even been won.”
Dr. King’s goal in Kingstree was to make sure local citizens went to the polls, most of them for the first time. “There is power gathered here today,” he said. He was there to acknowledge their fear yet see that nothing stood in the way of their right to cast a vote. Though the struggle had just begun, he told the crowd, it would have a great and lasting outcome.
His message to his fellow Americans to “see the power” and use the rights and freedoms bestowed upon them to make a difference at the polls resounds as it did 50 years ago, as the struggle for voting rights and voter engagement continues.
During my 35 years as a public historian, I have worked to make inclusivity a priority, to make sure all voices are heard, that all are included. I am well-aware of the long and important journey to make sure all people are represented at the table. I believe if we don’t exercise our “power,” our right to vote, we fail to do our part to further social and economic justice for all.
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Each of us must find a way to take up Dr. King’s work and make it our own. As we prepare to vote during the coming state and federal elections, Dr. King’s message is as meaningful and significant as it was during the Civil Rights Movement: “Let’s march on the ballot boxes until somehow we will be able to develop that day when men will have food and material necessities for their bodies, freedom and dignity for their spirits, education and culture for their minds.”
Let’s come together this election year to mark Dr. King’s message and legacy. As my grandfather and thousands of others did on that rainy day in Kingstree, let’s answer his call with shouts of amen and affirmation. Let’s continue to help fulfill his dream.
On May 8, Kingstree and Williamsburg County will welcome visitors from around the country for a 50th anniversary celebration of Dr. King’s “March on Ballot Boxes” speech. The event will include the unveiling of a historical marker created with the help of the S.C. Department of Archives and History’s State Historic Preservation Office, a gospel celebration and voter registration opportunities. Event details can be found at marchonballotboxes.com.
Mr. Allen is a member of the steering committee for the Kingstree celebration; reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.