If You Don’t Vote, Don’t Cry (#2)

IF YOU DON’T VOTE, DON’T CRY

If you don’t vote, don’t cry
We told you before to vote or die.

When things get really bad and you have to walk
Because you can’t buy gas and your walk is no longer all spiffy and spry,
Well, walk on brother, because if you don’t vote, don’t cry.

When you go to the store and the prices have gone through the ceiling and hit the sky,
And you’re walking around cussing and complaining and tell everybody
that these prices are too damn high
And you don’t know what you’re going to buy,
Well, if you don’t vote, don’t cry.

If you find yourself between a rock and a hard place
And you can’t pay your mortgage and have to downsize to a small space
And you feel disgusted and disgraced and can’t keep a tear from your eye,
Well, if you don’t vote, don’t cry.

If you get laid off from your job and things for you were already hard
And you know that they sent your job to another land
And all you can do is throw up your hands and ask God why?
Well, if you don’t vote, don’t cry.

If you get really ill and can’t go to the doctor because you can’t pay the bill
Not to mention buying those expensive pills,
And you feel like you’re going to die,
Well, if you don’t vote, don’t cry.

If you go off to school and you complied with all the rules
But you can’t get a grant or a student loan and have to pack your bags and go back home
And you’re all angry and upset and tell your mama that the world is just passing you by,
Well, if you don’t vote, don’t cry.

If you lose your food stamps and section eight
And you call your worker to get it straight
And she tells you that John McCain cut your benefits and didn’t say why
And you let out a heavy sigh,
Well, if you don’t vote, don’t cry.
We already told you to vote or die.

Copyright © Margaret Block, all rights reserverd.

http://www.crmvet.org/poetry/pblockm.htm

 

 

If You Don’t Vote, Don’t Cry

Sara Standish

Growing up in a small town in Eastern Washington, the extent of learning about African American history in my school consisted of watching the same animated kids’ movie about Martin Luther King Jr. for 4 or 5 years in a row. As far as I was concerned, Martin Luther King Jr. created and ran the entire Civil Rights Movement, and was the sole reason that the United States had made any progress in desegregation.  Of course, as I got older and learned more about the complex history of African American civil rights, I found that I could not have been more wrong. In fact, it amazed me to learn of how many people influenced the Civil Rights Movement in unique ways. Rather than being a movement ran by a few leaders, it was a movement that relied on countless African Americans, white Americans, and organizations. It was this amazement that led me to try to learn about some of the less known players of desegregation.

So, the cultural artifact that I have chosen to write about is a poem called “If You Don’t Vote, Don’t Cry”. This poem was written during the 1960s, in the heart of the Civil Rights Movement. The poem begins with, “If you don’t vote, don’t cry. We told you before to vote or die” (Veterans). Basically, the poem is urging African Americans to go out and vote for laws and politicians who will bring positive change for them. If those African Americans do not go out and vote, then they have no right to complain about the condition of the country. The poem’s tone is very strong and it suggests that when African Americans do not vote, they may as well have surrendered any possibility of being able to live a better life.

The author of this poem is Margaret Block. She was born in the early 1940’s and passed away earlier this year. Ever since she was a young adult and all the way to the end of her life, Block was an activist and an educator of the Civil Rights Movement, especially in the Mississippi Delta area. For example, she and her brother were both influential members of the SNCC. After her death, a colleague wrote a memorial for Block, saying, “Margaret Block was fearless; she didn’t give a damn what anyone thought of her” (Bean). That same colleague recalled that “Jaws would drop when Margaret would tell us how she got out of Tallahatchie County with the Klan on her tail.  ‘They would search every car with a black driver coming and going,’ she’d say, ‘but even the Klan had respect for a hearse, so that’s how we used to get people in and out of there when things got hot’” (Bean). Obviously, Block was a strong woman and she ended up contributing a great deal to the Civil Rights Movement. Her contributions and experience with this era are captured in her poems. Along with “If You Don’t Vote, Don’t Cry” she also wrote several other poems such as “Vote or Die” and “Justice and Jive”. Looking through all of her poems, it is clear that her style and messages come from her strong personality and also from the hardships she has endured.

To understand Block’s poem clearly and to see why her poem so strongly promotes voting, we must first understand the world that African Americans were living in during the civil rights era. Slavery in the United States had ended in 1865. However, nearly a century later, racial segregation was still running rampant in the U.S. in both laws and customs. On the lawful side, rules were established as a way to keep African Americans under white control. For example, in 1896 the Supreme Court faced the Plessy V Ferguson case and ruled that the notion of “separate but equal” was constitutional and could be required by state law. (Pittman, 2015). On the social side, it was still deemed perfectly acceptable by a large part of society to treat African Americans as if they were subhuman. A good example of this is seen when looking at the popular culture that came out of the U.S. during the first half of the 1900’s. Caricatures were created and extensively advertised toward white Americans. A few of these caricatures were Jezebel, Zip Coon, and the Pickaninny (Pittman, 2015). The Jezebel was known for her hyper-sexuality and loose morals, Zip Coon was an example of African Americans’ failure to adapt to white lifestyle, and the Pickaninny portrayed African American children as animalistic (Pittman, 2015). These images generalized African Americans into people with inferior qualities. Because some white Americans were able to use both the law and social opinion to their advantage, they were able to keep African Americans in an inferior class of citizenship, even during a time that was nearly 100 years after emancipation.

During these times of intense segregation, African Americans were not just sitting back and accepting their “separate but equal” fate. Many were fighting to get their message heard by using tools like the poem that Block wrote. In fact, the fights of many African Americans looked like they would be realized in 1954 with the Supreme Court Case Brown V Board of Education of Topeka decision that the notion of separate equality was unconstitutional, and that institutions such as schools could not exclude people based on race. However, segregation was just as bad in schools in the 1960’s as it was in before the case decision. (Pittman, 2015). Even though the Supreme Court had ordered the U.S. to start integrating the school system, they did not specify when the integration needed to start. So, even though the court decision was a symbol of the hard work of revolutionary African Americans, it was not really the pivotal moment in history that pulled the United States into the Civil Rights Movement. Because of the disappointment with the Brown case and white’s unwillingness to just hand over racial equality, African Americans began to realize that they were going to have to struggle for every single piece of equality that they desired. It was this resolve to fight that sparked the Civil Rights Movement in the late 1950’s to the 1960’s, and caused Block to write her poem in the midst of it all.

The key players of the Civil Rights Movement can be organized into three categories: the left side, the right side, and the central side (Pittman, 2015). The right side of the movement consisted of people and organizations who were considered more conservative in their approach to racial equality. The central side consisted of organizations such as the SCLC and several leaders, the most famous of them being Martin Luther King Jr. The central side of the movement tended to focus on nonviolent protests and were willing to sacrifice themselves for their cause. Finally, on the left side of the Civil Rights Movement, we have people and organizations who were considered radical and had the ultimate goal of completely uprooting and changing the racial system in the United States. Arguably the most influential leader that came out of the left side of the movement is Malcolm X. In addition, the SNCC, the organization that Block was an influential member of, was considered a left-side organization.

Block’s association with the left side of the movement can be seen through analysis of her poem. The last verse of her poem reads, “If you lose your food stamps and section eight, And you call your worker to get it straight, And she tells you that John McCain cut your benefits and didn’t say why, And you let out a heavy sigh, Well, if you don’t vote, don’t cry. We already told you to vote or die” (Veterans). The ideology behind the poem places the importance of the Civil Rights Movement on the voting power of African Americans. By repeating the line “If You Don’t Vote, Don’t Cry”, the poem is telling the reader that voting is the key to achieving their goals. While all the sides of the Civil Rights Movement believed that voting was somehow important, the left side tended to really believe that voting was the key to success. In Malcolm X’s speech “The Ballot or the Bullet”, he says, “So it’s time in 1964 to wake up…It’s got to be the ballot or the bullet. The ballot or the bullet” (Malcolm X). The ultimate goal for Malcolm X and for a large part of the left side of the movement was to create a separate community for African Americans within the United States where they would have economic and political control over their own lives. “The economic philosophy of black nationalism is pure and simple. It only means that we should control the economy of our community” (Malcolm X). By gaining voting power and encouraging others to vote, they believed they would establish this community. “If You Don’t Vote, Don’t Cry” was Block’s way of inspiring the average African American to vote.

 

Further analysis of Block’s poem shows other similarities between the poem’s significance and the significance of the rest of the movement. On one hand, the poem’s audience is targeted at all African Americans and does not directly address white Americans. This intended audience parallels the left side’s belief that African American reliance on white Americans would only hinder the movement (Malcolm X). On the other hand, the poem reflects the urgency and desperation that African Americans were feeling during the 1960’s. Block and her fellow fighters understood that there was no more time to wait for civil rights. Indeed, Malcolm X also addressed this in his speech by saying, “I think you’ll have to agree that we’re going to be forced either to use the ballot or the bullet. It’s one or the other in 1964. It isn’t that time is running out — time has run out!” (Malcolm X). Block could have just written a poem titled “Please Vote If You Get the Chance”, but that would not have created any substantial gain for African Americans. African Americans had already seen time and time again that when they waited patiently for white Americans to right the wrong, nothing would get done. The lack of action in the Brown V Board case reinforced this knowledge. So, “If You Don’t Vote, Don’t Cry” carries the same urgency that both the central and left side of the movement were feeling.

Overall, Margaret Block’s poem “If You Don’t Vote, Don’t Cry” was one of the countless mechanisms used by civil rights revolutionists to destroy the second-class lifestyle that African Americans faced during the mid 20th century. Contrary to what a younger version of me believed, the victories won during the Civil Rights Movement would never have happened without all of the lesser-known influences. The poem is timeless in that it’s message still holds power to this day. The suffering of blacks and equality gap between African Americans and white Americans is still seen today, and the vote is still considered one of the most powerful tools that average Americans can use to create change. Even though the poem may have been addressing issues of overt racism, many of those issues are being faced by African Americans today in different, less obvious forms. So, “If You Don’t Vote, Don’t Cry” acts as both a window to the past struggles and ideologies of the players of the civil rights era, and as a piece of advice to modern African Americans that the power to vote has and still is an important part of improving the U.S.

 

Works Cited

Bean, Alan. “In Memoriam: Margaret Block.” Friends of Justice. N.p., 11 July 2015. Web. 11 Dec. 2015. <https://friendsofjustice.wordpress.com/2015/07/11/in-memoriam-margaret-block/&gt;.

Pittman, LaShawnda (2015). The Second Reconstruction. [Powerpoint Slides].

“Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement.” Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2015. <http://www.crmvet.org/poetry/pblockm.htm&gt;.

X, Malcolm. “Malcolm X: The Ballot or the Bullet.” Malcolm X: The Ballot or the Bullet. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2015.

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