Sitting on a couch in the student union at North Carolina Central University surrounded by members of the school’s Civic Engagement Task Force is like being at the center of a friendly vortex. Words and phrases swirl around like flyaway sparks. Big ideas flow from one to the next without pause. And there’s a current of something in the air–the unmistakable buzz that comes from having so many smart, committed young people in the same place at the same time. This is not a uniform gathering. There are dreadlocks and business suits, high heels and sneakers–a mix of ages, interests and points of origin. But when it comes to what’s important, this group speaks with one voice: They’re about making history.
The task force, a spin-off of NCCU’s Political Science Club, had been working for more than a year to increase voter turnout on campus and in the surrounding South Durham neighborhoods. With the presidential election campaign heating up, group leaders decided to organize a march to the polls to mark the start of early voting in October.
The focus on voting grew out of concerns about continued disenfranchisement of black and-low income citizens–some of which dates to the 2000 presidential race, when voters were purged from the rolls in Florida, and some of which is as current as this week’s headlines.
“There has been a problem with lower to middle-class people–and not just black people–not getting out to vote or even being educated about voting,” says history major Quinton Keith, a task force member and vice president of the campus NAACP.
Student leaders felt a march would be a way to honor as well as inspire their community. “Marching is unique in the African-American tradition,” says D’Weston Haywood, an NCCU senior and president of the university’s Student Government Association. “We thought it would be special and symbolic if we marched to the polls. We knew it would resonate.”
And resonate it did. The Oct. 14 march drew more than 1,000 students, faculty and citizens who trekked for two miles from NCCU’s campus to an early voting site at Hillside High School. With civic leaders like Durham Mayor Bill Bell and NCCU Chancellor James Ammons in attendance, the event also garnered major media coverage–stories that chronicled the long lines that became commonplace at other early voting sites in the Triangle.
On Nov. 2, turnout at NCCU’s precinct was a stunning 80 percent. “This was huge,” says Durham County Elections Director Mike Ashe. “I don’t think any precinct has ever had that kind of turnout.” Countywide, 73 percent of registered voters cast ballots on Election Day. That was up sharply from 2000, when turnout was 53 percent.
The ripple effects of the march spread beyond voting. The event triggered interest among student leaders at other historically black colleges in North Carolina and across the country. It breathed new life into the public service aims of the local university. And it defied stereotypes of young people as political couch potatoes.
“These students didn’t want to be a part of this notion that appeared to have swept the nation that young people are apathetic and are not involved,” says Chancellor Ammons. “They realized that people were talking about which states were red and which were blue and none of their views had been a part of these surveys. Essentially they had been written off. They were determined to prove the pundits wrong.”
Though the organizing happened quickly, it wasn’t always easy. Task force members had to convince the NCCU Faculty Senate to allow students time off from classes. And they had to break through the walls of cynicism put up by some of their fellow students.
“The biggest challenge was making people believe,” says Jamie Bennett, a junior from Richmond, Va. who’s president of the campus NAACP. “People asked me, ‘Will we miss class? Will this make a difference?’ I told them, ‘If you’re there you’ll make a difference. Don’t worry about anybody else.”
Media coverage was welcome, but it sometimes reinforced the very pigeonholing that students were marching against. Haywood points to the “Handoff to Hip-Hop?” headline over a News and Observer story on the demonstration. “We didn’t play any music at the march,” he points out. “But we were put into that group.”
What’s important now, organizers say, is keeping the momentum going. They hope the march will lead to a broader civic engagement movement at other historically black campuses. And they don’t want people to underestimate them again–no more long lines or challenged votes from working-class and African-American precincts.
It’s hard to imagine underestimating this group. Almost all are double majors who belong to numerous campus and community organizations. Their career plans include public education, history, diplomacy–and yes, politics.
“We want to know who’s running for office next year,” says task force president Shawn Cunningham, a double major in political science and criminal justice who hopes someday to become a judge. “We want to be sure our elected officials are responsive to their community.”
More than anything, they want to paint a different picture of young, black leadership.
“Looking out at the march and seeing that mass of students, it was just so beautiful and inspiring,” says campus history club president Sashir Moore, who grew up hearing stories about her parents’ activism in the Civil Rights Movement.
“Our generation is always getting attacked because we didn’t march like our parents did,” adds her classmate John White, who is president of NCCU’s political science club. “But here, we were seeing people come together. It was a way to say, ‘We’re stepping up.’ We know we made a difference.”