Voting threads and threats

Dear Urban Outfitters: You did the right thing, pulling your "Voting is for Old People" T-shirt from your stores. That was a major "wardrobe malfunction"!

I have two kids who are customers of yours, and who also will be voting for the first time this year. They could have told you that the shirt's message was misplaced and illadvised. I know you have to be edgy to move the merchandise with Gen X, Y, and Z. But surely you can be hip and edgy in a less pernicious way than sending an antivoting message to a huge segment of the population. My two new voters are part of the next generation we should work hard to enfranchise.

Here's a message I want my kids to get about their right to vote: lots of people died for it. This goes beyond the exigencies of getting out the youth vote this year.

Voting is for brave people. Like the great-great-grandmothers of the kids buying your shirt, who marched en masse, chained themselves to polling places, and went to jail for women's right to vote. It took a constitutional amendment for them to win that right.

Voting is for daring, impassioned people. On Feb. 17, 1965, Jimmy Lee Jackson was shot in Alabama while protesting for voting rights. A few weeks later, on March 7, 600 people marched on Selma, Ala., to draw attention to the hundreds of potential voters being denied the right to register at the county courthouse. As they crossed the Edmund Pettus bridge, they were violently confronted by 200 state troopers. Seventeen marchers were hospitalized. It was known as Bloody Sunday, and its 40th anniversary was the day the Urban Outfitters T-shirt went on sale.

On March 21 that same year, Viola Liuzzo, a white volunteer from Detroit, was shot dead by four Ku Klux Klan members after a rally on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol.

Which is to say that Americans of color were denied access to the voting booth within the memory of many still-living "old people." The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, but it took 10 years more before Congress expanded the protection to Americans who didn't speak English.

And the brave protesters who fought for that right are the grandparents of Urban Outfitters customers.

We should also think of the struggle to vote elsewhere in the world. In 1994, when 17 million black South Africans voted for the first time, Nelson Mandela said, "Today is like no other before it. Today marks the dawn of our freedom." And this is within the memory of the young people shopping for your T-shirts. Black South Africans stood for hours, in lines that were miles long, waiting to cast their votes.

Every time a vote is cast it is a defiance of oppression. Voting is for free people, but free people must guard the privilege.

Lest we forget a more recent struggle here at home, in America's last presidential election, legally cast votes were agonized over for weeks, then thrown out or disqualified. It changed the outcome of the election. Several hundred votes changed history. Voting is for everyone - if everyone is vigilant and observant of its vulnerable, fragile promise.

Foreign countries new to the ballot box look to America to help oversee their elections. Voting is a right to be safeguarded - especially when oppression seems to be popping up in new, slyly aggressive forms.

The struggle to vote isn't over, but now it's a battle against a more insidious threat. Legislation may have secured legal rights, but motivational rights seem to be up for grabs as the next generation of voters has their hard-won rights snidely coopted while shopping. Voting is just too precious a privilege to be relegated to shameless commerce.

The crown of democracy - voting rights - was paid for by the blood and tears of millions. Those of us who wear this crown should never be complacent about its cost, or its value.

So here's a line for your next T-shirt: "Every vote counts. Count every vote."

Todd R. Nelson is an associate editor of Hope magazine. He lives in Castine, Maine.

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