In a few weeks, my daughter turns 18 and will vote in the November election. I've taken her to the polls with me since she was a toddler, and now it's her turn. Not voting is not an option. She knows we vote because of our history, because of voter suppression, because it's a birthright of citizenship and that in an imperfect world, it's still the way to effect change.
Recently, two important American voices weighed in on what's at stake.
Addressing the Congressional Black Caucus Dinner, President Barack Obama put into historical context the struggle for voting rights and then said, "I will consider it a personal insult — an insult to my legacy — if this community lets down its guard. You want to give me a good send off? Go Vote."
As much as I love our president and as enthusiastically as his message was received, it missed the mark. The importance of voting goes much deeper than personal insults or "send offs." Which brings me to the second voice.
Judge Damon J. Keith, nearing his sixth decade on the federal court at 94 years old, set media news sites on fire with his dissent in a 6th Circuit Court of Appeals voting rights case. At issue: procedural requirements in Ohio's voting laws concerning absentee and provisional ballots. The trial court found these rules to disproportionately impact minority voters. On appeal, the majority struck down much of the trial court's decision. Judge Keith passionately disagreed and in his dissent included an unprecedented photo gallery of men and women whom he called "martyrs for justice."
"The murders of countless men and women who struggled for the right to vote and equal protection cannot be overlooked," he wrote.
No one who knows Judge Keith was surprised by his fiery dissent. It was his fidelity to the Constitution and his string of courageous civil rights decisions that inspired me, more than 30 years ago, to clerk for him. I was an idealistic young black lawyer bent on a career in civil rights after a stint with a big law firm. Clerking for the judge was the best job I ever held. And while my career path veered, Judge Keith has never wavered in his commitment to the Constitution or his responsibilities as a black judge. In a 1983 law review article, he wrote: "black judges must take every opportunity to fashion the law in a manner that reflects the 300 year history of discrimination that our people have suffered in this land."
This year's presidential election will be the first in more than half a century without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act. It was no accident that Judge Keith's dissent referred to the election of President Obama. During those eight years we saw the highest voter turnout in history by black and young people.
"Our decision today, and more decisions like this one, will undoubtedly shape the future of this Nation because deciding who gets to vote inevitably affects who will become our leaders," wrote Judge Keith.
His own walk toward justice has been a long one. Appointed by President Johnson in 1967, he made landmark rulings in the most important civil rights issues of our time in housing, education, employment and civil liberties. Judge Keith is as steeped in the history of civil rights as any of the movement's martyrs, from Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to Judge Keith's mentor Thurgood Marshall, to the woman he calls Mother Parks. In fact, when Rosa Parks moved to Detroit, Judge Keith found her employment at the federal court building. Looking back on those days, it seems surreal to remember routinely seeing the mother of the civil rights movement in the courthouse hallways.
The judge's long record of fighting for justice and equality should be front and center for all of us as we head into this election. And it may especially resonate with first-time voters. If there is one thing that matters to millennials, it's fairness and social consciousness. In fact their activism is reminiscent of what was happening during the civil rights movement. The current ceaseless wave of black men and women across the country dying at the hands of police cries out for reform-minded judges, city council members, mayors and prosecutors. That happens by voting.
In the twilight of his life, when Judge Keith could be enjoying a well deserved retirement with his daughters and grandchildren, instead he daily heads to the courthouse. He continues to joyfully and passionately crusade for justice. And come Nov. 8th, we, too, have to do our part.
Renee Chenault Fattah is a lawyer and a member of the Johns Hopkins Board of Trustees. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.