Operation Big Vote moves to register minority voters

Boston is one of the nation's ''key communities'' in the drive to corral black votes, says Gracia Hillman, the executive director of Operation Big Vote, a national campaign to bring minority people to the polls.

The big problem, she says, is to get black people as concerned with voting as they are with jobs during a recession. Potential voters must be sold on the idea of registering and voting by identifying with candidates they know.

''People hear the big outside speakers like (the Rev.) Jesse Jackson and are inspired,'' says Ms. Hillman, who is based in Washington, D.C. ''But when a register-and-vote drive forces you to drag black people to the registrar and the voting booth, the chore gets tiresome. Then many (volunteers) backtrack.

''To keep the tireless going, we add a new incentive. Localize the campaign. Identify with black candidates for state and local offices. People respond.''

''I'm going to vote this year,'' says Charleen McBrayer, a Boston mother of an 11-year-old. ''Sure, I've been registered ever since I was eligible to vote, but lots of times I just wouldn't vote. I just don't believe in voting for the lesser of two evils.''

Mrs. McBrayer says she will cast her ballot this year because a black candidate, Melvin H. King, is running for mayor of Boston. She would also vote next year if the Rev. Mr. Jackson runs for president.

Mrs. McBrayer has neglected politics, she says, because she has not been interested in candidates. On the other hand, she is active in community affairs, such as the tenants' council, the neighborhood crime watch, and even voter-registration drives.

''But,'' she says, ''I have used all the excuses blacks have tendered to keep from going to the polls: I don't have time. My baby needs me. And the most frequent of all - my vote doesn't count.''

She has revived her interest in politics, she says, because of Operation Big Vote activities in Boston, especially in such places as parks, recreation centers, supermarkets, and other places close to public housing projects.

Such campaigns may be having an effect. Voter registration in Boston is almost 30 percent ahead of enrollment during previous election years, according to the Boston Election Commission. And some 80 to 85 percent of those voters are minority residents, estimates one commissioner.

Bruce Wall, a community activist and minister who started his own voter-registration program, '' Yes, We Can,'' tells another story.

''I'm not happy,'' he says. ''The task of building the voting rolls is time-consuming, discouraging, hard work. But it's also inspirational to the black who stands up as an active part of our nation's political life.''

Even the campaign of a black mayoral candidate has not had the effect that it could, says Mr. Wall. ''Our young people know nothing about him (Mr. King) or his campaign.''

Confirmation of the minister's thoughts is often found among groups of youths gathered on basketball courts, tennis courts, and baseball diamonds. An older man turned the talk towards politics during a basketball break.

''Oh, sure I'm registered,'' several youths say. ''Oh, you're talking about the polls. I thought you were talking about the draft. . . .''

A couple of others interrupted. ''I registered at a high school program on voting. I heard some speeches. Two registrars were at the school. So I signed up. Sure, I'm going to vote this year. Mel King is running, and we have a chance to elect a black mayor, just like Chicago.''

''Ah, man, we can't do that here,'' says someone else. ''We don't have enough brothers and sisters to vote him in.'' (Boston is slightly more than 22 percent black, compared to 41 percent for Chicago.)

An older man suggested that the players register. ''Where do you go to do that?'' ''City Hall!'' A look of gloom. Then hope. Along came a person with flyers announcing a ''family day'' registration drive.

Even among some well-educated blacks, the value of going to the polls is questioned. ''I haven't voted but once since I finished college,'' one woman says. ''No, I definitely won't vote in the presidential primary if a black man runs. He can't win anyway. I'm not going to waste my vote.''

Others disagree with her ideas. Angela Hemenway, 22, says, ''I've voted every year since I was 18. It's a privilege to vote. I don't plan to ring any bells, but I plan to be political.''

An activist mother who once lived in the South says, ''I know how important it is to vote. I instill in my two kids that voting is citizenship.''

Victoria Groomes speaks in favor of voting, but she's not registered. ''I missed registering by a few minutes last year,'' she says. ''I know I have time now, but somehow it slips into the back of my mind. I really want to be politically active, and I just have to be more alert if I'm going to vote.''

Regina Storer didn't register to vote until eight years ago, when she was 25 years old. ''I saw no reason to vote before then, but now I'm more mature.''

Victories by black candidates in other cities are ''wonderful,'' she says, ''but we need one of our own here in Boston.''

Josephine Holley, a businesswoman, says, ''I believe in voting for my own, but I don't think black people should vote for a candidate just because he or she is black, and for no other reason.''

So goes conversation on street corners, in middle-class gatherings, in the parks. And campaigners hope that the 1984 political agendas initiate ideas that stir action among potential black voters in Boston.

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