On May 17, 1957 in Washington, DC, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “Give Us the Ballot” address. It was three years after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down “separate but equal” in their Brown v. Board of Education decision and eight years before the Voting Rights Act would become law in 1965.
“And so our most urgent request to the president of the United States and every member of Congress is to give us the right to vote,” said King. In his speech he envisioned the changes that the right to vote would bring for black Americans, including the ability to stand for their own basic rights, to elect “men of good will” to office, and to fully contribute to the fabric of American society.
King’s call for access to the ballot and voter participation remains potent today. Turnout in the 2014 midterm election was just 36%–the lowest since 1942.
The need for wider participation should resonate with nonprofits whose constituents typically turn out to the polls at lower rates yet have vastly different opinions about public policy, government spending, and more. For organizations that employ advocacy, remember that “[v]oting is the foundation stone for political action.” Nonprofits can continue to honor King’s legacy not only with the good work they do every day, but by using their relationships with the community to help every eligible American vote on election day.
While MLK Day has recently become a call to service, Nonprofit VOTE has continued to encourage nonprofits use it as a day to engage their communities around the importance of political participation. Honor Martin Luther King Jr. today and every day by committing your nonprofit to nonpartisan voter engagement. Your organization can be part of the larger movement in the nonprofit sector to increase voter engagement, close participation gaps, and foster a vibrant, inclusive democracy.