It is my philosophy as an artist that EVERYONE HAS A STORY TO TELL AND A STORY TO HEAR. Working on the Uplift the Vote exhibit and telling the story of Fayette County and Tent City was an education and a privilege. Rarely do artists get to see the continued impact of their work, and yet, in this case, I did.
I had to do maintenance on the exhibit weekly, so I would work quietly to one side while also being able to watch the interaction of the public with the tent. Occasionally I would see students stop and scan the panels on the exhibit, often while listening to their earbuds. Slowly the buds would come off, and the music would be stopped as the students were drawn farther into the narrative. Often the phone shifted purpose from music to camera, and the students would take pictures of the panels or specific images. A few times I even witnessed a student pulling their friends into the exhibit, excitedly pointing out a person in a photo: “I know her!” I would hear. Either way, in that moment, history had become REAL. Tangible. Familiar. This was and is where history and contemporary issues meet.
We need to know the value of our vote and the costs associated with it. We cannot take it for granted. That is why I am so thrilled that the Uplift the Vote exhibit is currently being hosted by the Fayette County Public Schools. On display in one of the local schools, the children and grandchildren of these activists and those who opposed them will be able to study the movement and see documentation of the historic impact of the actions of their elders. The community at large will be able to come and reflect on the challenges of their past and how it relates to the issues of present day. As for me, I am looking forward to once again being a witness to the impact of the work.
Exhibit, “Uplift the Vote: Everybody Should Have A Voting Story”
Fayette County Public Schools Central Administration Building,10425 Hwy 76 S. Somerville, TN 38068
February 7 – March 7, 2019, Monday through Friday from 12 pm to 4 pm. The exhibit will be open on the following Saturdays: February 9, and 16, and March 2, 2019, 10 am to 2 pm.
The Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change at the University of Memphis and Fayette County Public Schools, Somerville, Tennessee invites you to experience “Uplift the Vote: Everyone Should Have a Voting Story,” a dual exhibit on the importance of our most basic civil right – the right to vote. Explore through photographs, documents and reflections, how African Americans’ demand for the right to vote in Fayette County, Tenn., in 1959 changed the lives of activists, the community and the nation through the exhibit. Then, prepare yourself for your own civic participation and learn how to register to vote in Tennessee. This exhibit is intended to educate and encourage citizens to exercise the right to vote, hard-won by African Americans and others.
By Kevyanna L. Rawls President, University fo Memphis Student Government Association
From 2011 to 2015, I spent approximately 7.5 hours of my day of every weekday at Little Rock Central High School. Known for its’ role in the Civil Rights Movement, Little Rock Central High School was the first high school to be integrated in Arkansas and captured national attention as local government officials tried to keep the nine Black teenagers, who would be referred to as the Little Rock Nine, out of the all-white high school. As the Black teenagers attempted to integrate the high school, they were met by protestors who spit on them, threw miscellaneous items at them, and were not allowed to enter the school causing the National Guard to step in. Our professors and administrators made it their duty to ensure that all students were knowledgeable on the situation that occurred at our school, the processes and steps that had to occur for integration to happen, and the barriers that stood between the nine Black students and the then all-White Central High School.
Although, I assume, this information was taught to us to remind students of how embarrassing of a time this was for the entire city and state, professors also used this as an opportunity to emphasize the importance of civic engagement in the democratic process. We would be naïve to believe that all individuals, despite race, in the south wanted integration to occur; however we can see the ways in which the anger and frustration citizens endured at the time was in part because of the power of the government at a state and national level. One could also argue that the individuals at the time did not hold the same values as they did, and is primarily responsible for the events that occurred in Little Rock, Arkansas during the 1960s.
For this reason, I vote.
As a Black woman, I believe that it is especially important for me to vote because of the intersectionality of my identities. In America we have seen the various waves of feminism that included gaining the right to vote for White women and the Civil Rights Movement that in part advocated for the right of Black men to vote, but of those two movements I fail to completely identify with either. As white women and Black men gained access to the ballot, women like Fannie Lou Hamer still needed to advocate for the Black woman’s vote at the cost of her own physical well-being and sanity. It is with this in mind that I am reminded of why it is important for me to be registered to vote and exercise my rights to do so. If voting was not important, why would individuals spend hundreds of years denying minority groups the right to do so? Why would barriers be set in place to disenfranchise minority populations, if voting had no impact on the society we live in? Although the issues are different, the necessity to vote and the consequences of not voting have remained the same.
By actively deciding not to register to vote, one makes the decision to allow the rest of society to tell them what is best for them and decide what issues to focus on for the allotted time period. The decision to not participate in democracy is a decision to silence your own voice when everyone else is speaking for what they believe in. As I entered my first year of college, I vividly recall being excited to register to vote. With my birthday being in early September, I did not have the opportunity to participate in the elections the year before, but knew that voting was one of the most exciting things about turning 18. Registering to vote was something you could do when getting a new license after you turned 18, so I did it on the spot. I felt so empowered and remember the excitement that I felt when I was officially considered a registered voter.
The first time I was able to vote was in the 2016 election and I was extremely nervous. At the time I had no car and knew that my parents would not be able to drive to Memphis to take me to vote, so I took a chance and requested an absentee ballot. The joy I had when I received the absentee ballot is indescribable. I simply recall going to my room and googling every candidate, searching for information about every bill on the ballot, and being able to genuinely take my time to learn more about the values of the individuals seeking to gain my vote. I assume this feeling is incomparable to going to an actual polling station to vote, but it reminded me of how I could make a contribution to my community in a positive way.
As the president of the University of Memphis Student Government Association, I believe that my position on campus is evidence of the significance of voting. As an elected representative of the student body, I was elected because I was entrusted with being able to represent students the way they would like to be represented and this is the hope we all have for our local, state, and national representatives. We expect them to have our best interest in mind when making decision. We expect them to be honest and transparent with us. We expect that they honor their commitment to their position and seek to enhance the quality of life for us through their decision. For this reason, I encourage YOU to vote. It is not about whose side you are on or who you have heard the most conversation about, it is about who can represent you and make the impact in your community that you would like to see despite their personal opinions. Allow them to be your voice by showing up at the polls on November 6th.
About the Author
Kevyanna Rawls is a senior English and African American Studies double major with double minors in Spanish and Sociology. Currently, Kevyanna serves the SGA President for the 69th general assembly. As an advocate for equity and justice, Kevyanna uses her platform to advocate for underrepresented populations and address student concerns on the campus of the University of Memphis. Kevyanna’s involvement with advocacy and social justice have motivated her to pursue an education in law and the ways in which laws may enhance the experience of individuals in America while negatively impacting the lives of others. Kevyanna intends to attend law school in Fall 2020 and later become a civil rights’ attorney.