OUR VOTES, OUR LIVES
The Point Was, Voices of Young Activists Can, and Should Matter
By David Bradley
"When adults came to Selma, Selma had already been organized
by the students — not by the adults."
—Bettie Mae Fikes, a teenage activist in Selma, Alabama
I knew John Lewis and Martin Luther King, of course. Their leadership in the fight for voting rights is legendary. But Bettie Mae Fikes? Charles Bonner? Cleophas Hobbs? Never heard of them.
Those three were teenagers in Selma, Alabama, in the early 1960’s. Even though most adult civil rights activists had written off Selma as a lost cause in the fight to give African-Americans equal access to voting, these teenagers stepped up. They organized; they marched; they inspired their teachers to march. A basketball coach said his students told him as they left school to protest, “Coach I’m going to get your freedom.” The teenage activists were catalysts for change.
Their names are in the history—if you go looking. But their voices recede behind those of the more renowned adults.
When the Committee of Seventy and I started talking in 2015 about the play that would become Voices of Voting, the idea was to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. King and Lewis were certain to be key figures in what we made. But by the time Voices of Voting premiered in July 2016, with the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia and the country heading into a big election, the teenage activists had taken center stage.
I think what most grabbed me was that I didn’t know these people, and that their voices weren’t lifted up. I wasn’t interested in a competition—who matters more, Dr. King or Bettie Mae Fikes. That wasn’t the point. I was interested in the fact that Bettie Mae Fikes and Charles Bonner and others had spoken. That their voices mattered. That became the point—that the voices of young people can, and should, matter.
I suspect part of the reason we don’t hear more about these young activists is that too often we don’t lift up the voices of young people. If that happens enough, young people might wonder if their voices do matter. I loved that in Voices of Voting we got to highlight the impact of teenagers speaking up.
Not every opportunity to use our voices is as dramatic as Selma’s voting rights crusade. It might be easy to think that if you’re not in an extreme moment, you’re in no moment at all. But sometimes it’s not about a moment, it’s about a series of moments that add up. Journalist Derek Thompson wrote in 2016 that political change doesn’t come through one big revolutionary action. It comes in the repeated “again and again and again” of voting, “not just every four years. Not just for cool candidates…in local elections, midterm elections, presidential contests.”
When Voices of Voting premiered, we invited audiences to share reactions on a “Town Hall Wall.” One person wrote, “Our votes count and our lives count!”
I love the joining of “votes” and “lives” in that statement—the idea that counting in life and voting in life are connected. And I love the exclamation point, how it stamps the statement with power. Voting. Life. Power.
Bettie Mae Fikes and her friends fought in an extraordinary moment so that next generations of young voters could practice what should be the regular moment of exercising the power of the vote—again and again and again. As we look to a next big election, here’s to making that moment count.
David Bradley is the playwright of Voices of Voting, commissioned by Philadelphia’s Committee of Seventy. He’s a theater director, writer, producer and educator based in Philadelphia.
VOICES OF VOTING
Written and directed by David Bradley
Commissioned and produced by the Committee of Seventy
Targeted to middle and high school students but appropriate for the general public, Voices of Voting is a short play commissioned in 2016 by the Committee of Seventy and written and directed by award-winning Philadelphia theater artist David Bradley.The play ties the personal struggles and political courage of the 1960’s voting rights campaign to the present-day challenge of engaging young people in our electoral process. Three actors play more than a dozen characters in an event full of audience participation and laced with live music from members of the acclaimed hip-hop/funk/jazz collective Ill Doots.
See the coverage from performances in July 2016 in Newsworks, PHL17 and the Times Herald, from November 2016 performance at CBS and ABC, and January 2017's MLK Day performance on CBS.