Monday, July 16, 2012

Getting Out the Vote 1964

I considered myself to be a teenaged rebel. I questioned everything adults told me to do, except when it came to homework and politics.

I always did more homework than was assigned and I did whatever the adults at the American Friends Service Committee suggested.  Without question, without doubt, without fear, without any sense of self-preservation.  Okay, I told my parents, but they were so relieved that I wasn’t interested in drugs or boys that they didn’t question my political activities.

It was Tuesday, November 3, 1964.  Even though it was a Tuesday and I had homework, I drove my shabby old car to the AFSC office and picked up a list of registered Democrats in a neighborhood that usually had a poor vote turnout.  

I didn’t ask why this neighborhood had a poor turnout.  I didn’t ask about the crime rate. The polls closed at 7 PM and I had to get there quickly to get out as many voters as possible.  

My instructions: do what it takes to get them to vote.  Drive them to the polls. Babysit their children. 

I am white. I am small. I am middle class. I was a teenager in high school with a new driver’s license, and an unreliable car, that I was supporting on my after school job as a crafts teacher at the Girls’ Club.

I was sent to a low income black neighborhood.  It never occurred to me that this wasn’t someplace I should go alone. An adult I trusted without question had sent me.

I knocked on doors.  I offered to drive women to the polls.  They did NOT want a pimply teenager driving them.  But free babysitting!  By a crafts teacher! By a high school student who could help their children with homework.  The first woman  promised she’d vote and be back quickly, so I could help somebody else.  She let me into her home.  She left me in charge of her children.

The children didn’t want crafts. Or help with their homework. They were busy with their games and snacks.  One of them told me his big brother could teach me something.  It sounded like a threat, but there was no big brother in sight.

I wasn’t worried.  Their mother would be back soon. I was doing something good. I was getting out the vote. I sat on the couch. I watched the children – easiest baby sitting job I’d ever had, except I wasn’t being paid and I didn’t know when Mom was coming back.

This was in the days before cell phones.  Mom was gone over 40 minutes.  I started wondering if she was really a Republican, just keeping me here so I couldn’t help real Democrats get to the polls.

Finally Mom returned, arms loaded with grocery sacks.  As long as I was babysitting her children, she just ran a few errands.  The folks at AFSC hadn’t warned me about this possibility. I was supposed to visit as many homes as possible and help as many people as possible get to the polls.

The next few homes were uneventful. Women politely thanked me for reminding them to vote and closed the door.

The next woman asked me to get dinner started while she was gone.  I’d never made instant mashed potatoes before, or since.  But I read the instructions on the box. The children helped me select a pan, and find a measuring cup. I figure out the stove by myself.  While the mess boiled, I chopped veggies.  This woman returned about the time the potatoes were done.  She was angry that I’d chopped the veggies. She wasn’t planning to eat them today.

I’d allocated 3 hours between 4 PM and 7PM for getting out the vote.  It was now nearly 6PM and I’d helped 2 people.  I kept telling myself – one vote can make a difference.

For the next half hour, I knocked on doors, and the people who answered told me they had voted, or promised they would vote, anything to make me go away.  It reminded me of the time I tried to sell canned peanuts for the Camp Fire Girls. People don’t want things that get sold door-to-door. Especially from somebody from a different cultural group.

At 6:30, another woman wanted babysitting for her children.  She promised to be back quickly.  I reminded her that the polls close at 7 PM.  She left.

I made peanut butter sandwiches for her children. I read to them. 7 o’clock came and went.  Mom had not returned.  I reminded myself - there might be a line at the polls. The polls do stay open later if there is a line, and after she votes, she still has to come home.  There was no reason to expect her at 7 PM.  Then again, she might have abandoned her children on my watch.  I wanted to call the AFSC for advice.  The home had no phone.  

My mind went through a list of possibilities.  Should I go next door and see if they have a phone? Who should I call first – AFSC or the Police. Or maybe my mom?  I was becoming a dither-head..  I didn’t dare start my own homework for fear of what these children might do if I took my eyes off them for an instant. I wasn’t even sure how I would get them to accompany me if I decided to go next door.

About 7:30, the mother returned home.  She’d gone out drinking with friends.  Yes, she assured me she had voted.  She walked me to my car, which was still there and had air in all its tires.

As I drove home, I thought – maybe 3 votes will make a difference.

In retrospect, I was incredibly lucky. I survived going alone into strangers’ homes in an unsafe neighborhood, and using knives and fire around children I didn’t know. And yet, when I look back on this experience, I was right to trust the world – everything came out fine.

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