Atlanta college students register voters, see the Ferguson beyond the headlines
Updated at 3:30 p.m., Friday, March 13
As several Ferguson officials resigned this week, Atlanta college students under the direction of the NAACP spent their days meeting the city’s residents.
In four days they registered more than 150 Ferguson and Jennings residents to vote, and collected contact information for another 3,000.
According to Atlanta NAACP president Richard Rose, that information will be used to help get out the vote for the April 7 municipal elections.
“It doesn’t count unless you pull the lever or punch the card or whatever the voting apparatus is. You only can participate if you go and vote,” Rose said.
Less than 12 percent of Ferguson Township’s registered voters participated in last year’s municipal elections. Ferguson Township includes other municipalities in addition to Ferguson. County-wide, the turnout was just over 12 percent.
Rose says that while demonstrations are part of political action, the visiting students didn’t attend protests while in Ferguson because that wasn’t the purpose of their trip.
For Clark Atlanta University student Samantha Richards, the week was an opportunity to see the Ferguson beyond the headlines. She said she has been inspired by the people she meant.
“I mean, there was not one person whose door we stopped at ... that did not give us encouragement,” Richards said.
She said the highlight of the trip was visiting area high schools on Thursday, where she was able to give some of that inspiration back, and encourage the high school students to go beyond voting.
She said she told the students that “once you do vote your job is not done. … Now it’s up to you to make sure you get the result that you want, by holding your elected council members and representatives accountable.”
Morehouse College student Blake Stoner said the work they did registering voters is only the beginning, and he wished they could have done more.
“It is good to register people to vote, but if you don’t give them the motivation to vote, they just have another right that they’re not going to use,” Stoner said. “So we did help. But more people are going to have to come. More people are going to have to do more work.”
All told, about 50 students participated in the alternative spring break organized by the Atlanta NAACP.
Original story from Sunday, March 8, 2015.
After a long drive from Georgia and a short night at a nearby hotel, about 50 college students tumbled out of a charter bus Sunday morning and onto the parking lot of the boarded-up Red’s BBQ on West Florissant Avenue.
As each one stepped off the bus, they were greeted by Ferguson activist Charles Wade with a high five or a fist bump. After asking the students to divide up into groups of three, Wade took them on a short tour of West Florissant, pointing out the McDonalds where they can take breaks, the Heal STL office that got damaged in November and Oak Manor Apartments where some of the students will later be headed.
For the next three days, the students will be knocking on doors in and around Ferguson, registering voters and getting the word out about municipal elections on April 7.
Atlanta NAACP organized the voter registration trip with help from the St. Louis NAACP.
“There has been a lot of emotions about what happened in Ferguson, what happened in New York and Florida, and I thought this was a good way for (the students) to express their emotions in a positive way,” Atlanta NAACP President Richard Rose explained.
Noting that Sunday was the 50th anniversary of the march on Selma, Rose said that people forget that the march came after a long voter registration drive.
“Within a few days (of getting the word out about the trip) we had 40 something volunteers,” Rose said. “They gave up their spring breaks. They could have been doing a lot of things—resting, on the beach, home with mother. But they chose to come unselfishly and give up their time.”
Three of Ferguson's city council seats will be decided April 7. Although African Americans make up a majority of the city's population, only one of the six current council members is black. Eight candidates, including several African Americans, are running for the open seats.
Historically, municipal elections in Ferguson and throughout St. Louis County have had low voter turnout. Ferguson's 2013 municipal election drew just over 12 percent of registered voters.
For Clark Atlanta University students Mahalia Barrow, Alexis Carey, Adrain Artary and Christian Smith Jr., the week is a chance to make a difference in a place that they have been watching closely since last summer.
“When we saw what was going on in Ferguson on TV, the immediate question was what can we do to help,” Mahalia Barrow said. “And at the time I felt really powerless when I found out about the Mike Brown situation. You see these things and you know there should be a way to help but you never know how to actually do it. But I felt like I might be able to help in a real way (with the voter registration drive).”
“I’m hoping that we get some people registered to vote because that is the ultimate goal here. And voting is power,” Alexis Carey said. “I hope that change does happen. That it gets the right people in office and it kicks the wrong people out.”
“Just ... protesting won’t help, but voter registration plays a big part when it comes to electing the leaders that will play a bigger role,” Adrain Atary said. “So that’s why I’m here.”
St. Cloud State University student Britton Mikkelson found out about the trip on the social media site Tumblr and took a train from Minnesota to St. Louis to join in.
“Mike Brown was about the same age as my cousin and that was a big issue for me because I grew up with him,” Mikkelson said. “So I found the opportunity and I figured it was something I could do that would make a difference instead of just hanging out at home.”
The students will be in the region through Friday, but the deadline to register to vote before the April 7 elections is Wednesday, so they also have other activities planned.
“We start in Ferguson. We’ll see how much work we get done today. And then we’ll proceed to Jennings and some other municipalities based on the leadership of the local residents,” Rose said. “We hope to ramp up the enthusiasm and emphasis that to be part of the political structure you have to vote.”
Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille.