Dr. Barber Says Student Civic Engagement Is Essential – GDN Exclusive “A Call to Colors” Vol. II Part XIIIby Cash Michaels, GDN Contributing Writer April 24, 2019
As “A Call to Colors,” the student-led nonpartisan civic engagement campaign towards voter registration, education and mobilization on HBCU and other college campuses begins to expand beyond North Carolina, the input of national leadership becomes more and more relevant.
With the 2020 elections just around the corner, harnessing the power of the black student vote is critical, observers say, in determining the future of this nation.
Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, president and senior lecturer of Repairers of the Breach, and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, is considered, perhaps, the strongest proponent of HBCU student civic engagement, having led the battle in North Carolina to both strengthen and protect voting rights during his 12 years as NCNAACP president.
In an exclusive interview with Greater Diversity News, Dr. Barber maintains that the vision and commitment he had as a young, but dynamic Student Government Association president on the campus of North Carolina Central University during the 1980s when he led marches to the polls, must be shared by today’s HBCU student leaders so that their views and vision of the issues are felt.
“College students, particularly HBCU students, should be the last ones to turn their backs on voting, because it was students who fought for the right to vote, even before they could vote,” he told GDN, reminding that initially, you had to be 21 (though you could be drafted to serve in the military at age 18) to do so. Many of the students who took part in the sit-in, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Freedom Summer movements of the mid-1960’s were too young to vote, and actually didn’t get the right to vote, starting at age 18, until the 1970s, Rev. Barber maintains.
For HBCU students “not to be fully engaged” today in voting, is “to walk away” from an important legacy previous generations won on those campuses like Shaw University and others, he continued.
Dr. Barber also made a critical point that, thus far, no one else interviewed by GDN on the subject of student civic engagement has made, but must be considered.
Regardless of who wins the presidency or Congress in 2020, “ …they can literally draft you out of your life, and send you to war!” he said. Selective Service is not compulsory now, but that could change in an instant if the next president and/or Congress deem it so.
Voting determines who makes those decisions.
“Students not only need the history, but also need to know the policies that are impacted by voting,” Rev. Barber continued, noting that not voting results in the kind of law enforcement problems that plague the black community. “Remember that sheriffs are elected, and chiefs of police in cities are appointed by City Councils that are elected.”
“Stand your ground laws are voted on in state legislatures. Who has the right to own a gun is determined in state legislatures. In many places, you have to be a registered voter to sit on a jury. So when you want to see bad cops prosecuted, but you’re not registered to vote, then you’re really not putting your vote where you’re marching,” Dr. Barber said.
And it’s not just those issues. Voting decides who will shape policies around health care; living wage laws; helping the poor; voting rights; the way the court system works; public school funding; and even funding for HBCUs.
And don’t forget an issue close to every college student’s heart – college debt. Voting determines the policies on how that debt will be managed now, and in the future.
One of the Democratic presidential candidates has just recently announced that she is in favor of forgiving college student debt for millions of Americans.
“People who run for public office, run to have power over the budgets,” Rev. Barber says. Voting gives citizens, and certainly students, power over them.
“Students on HBCU campuses can determine who sits in office,” Dr. Barber concluded. “They must resist those who say, ‘Voting doesn’t matter.’ It does matter! Look at the mess we’re in now!”
Unlike his days leading students on NCCU’s campus, Rev. Barber says HBCU students today have the advantage of social media to get messages of civic engagement out, and reinforce them. As SGA president, Barber fought for a polling precinct on campus, and after leading 2,000 students in 1984 in that demand, a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., got it! Students today must also raise their voices, but also display their voting power to get similar results, he says.
“Any time folks will spend pornographic sums of money to suppress our vote, it must mean something, because they wouldn’t do it if it didn’t mean anything!”
“We must think broader, we must think deeper, and we must be fully engaged!” says Dr. Barber.
Among other things, GDN recommends that all HBCU SGAs and Black Student Unions (BSUs) incorporate the following in their efforts:
- Standing civic engagement/A Call to Colors committees for SGAs and Black Student Unions (BSUs),
- Earn up to 200 hours/4 years credit for civic engagement,
- Do outreach to Greeks, other student organizations and other schools.