Merlene Davis: Churches take the lead in voter education

Rand's statement galvanized minister

Herald-Leader columnistOctober 5, 2010 

  • IF YOU GO

    Voter Education Forum, sponsored by Operation Turnout

    When: 6 p.m., Oct. 14

    Where: Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church, 235 East Fifth St., Lexington

    Information: (502) 641-3676, Operationturnout.weebly.com

When Republican Senate nominee Rand Paul, fresh from his primary victory in the spring, stated that the U.S. Civil Rights Act went too far in forcing private businesses to abide by the anti-discrimination law, many members of Lexington's black community saw that as a call to action.

"You look at the political climate and you see complacency," said the Rev. L. Clark Williams, associate minister at Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church. But "some people were talking about it in small circles."

Williams took that small circle and enlarged it, bringing together 15 c hurches and several civic organizations to form Operation Turnout, a voting initiative designed to register, inform and commit voters to the fall elections.

After Paul's statements, a Courier-Journal/WHAS 11 Bluegrass Poll found that only 60 percent of those surveyed said the law should require that customers of all ethnic backgrounds be served, Williams said. That means 40 percent of Kentuckians think businesses have the right to discriminate.

With those numbers in mind, Operation Turnout was formed Aug. 21.

The non-partisan group has been registering people to vote, making people more aware of the upcoming elections and, now, will be holding a candidates forum to ensure that people are better informed before entering the voting booth.

The candidates for mayor of Lexington, Mayor Jim Newberry and Vice Mayor Jim Gray, have agreed to come. So have several candidates for at-large seats on the Urban County Council, and candidates in other state and local races.

They will be given 10 minutes to introduce themselves and expound on several issues that will be given to them in advance. There will be no endorsements by the group.

The forum will at 6 p.m. Oct. 14 at Shiloh.

To have 15 churches and several organizations onboard after such a short time is a turnaround from the lackadaisical approach that some minorities had toward the elections, Williams said: "We rarely find ways to work together."

The Rev. Troy Thomas of St. Paul AME, one of the churches participating in the initiative, said voting is far too essential to our future well-being to take it so casually. "It is important that we don't forget we have a right to vote," he said. Just because President Barack Obama's name is not on the ballot and this is not a general election is no reason to sit this one out, he said.

"Sometimes we become reactionary instead of proactive," Thomas said. "Operation Turnout is proactive. It gives us an opportunity to be on the forefront."

Plus, said the Rev. Joseph Owens of Shiloh, "people died so we could have the right to vote. Information is power."

VIP parking will be provided at the church for those who need to attend the council meeting that evening. "They can address the people and get on back to the council meeting," Owens said.

Tayna Fogle, an active member of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, an organization that advocates for returning the right to vote to ex-felons, said it appeared that the passion of the civil rights movement had died. "Our community was not interested in the process but were fast to complain," she said.

"Once I sat at the table and listened to what was said, I knew I needed to be a part of that and that our churches need to be a part of that," Fogle said.

And this is only the beginning, Williams said. The group will continue to identify residents who are 18 or older and register them to vote.

Then it will help voters become more educated about a candidate's stance by holding forums in future elections.

Plus, each church will put an insert in its bulletins asking voters if they need rides to the polls and asking them to sign commitments to vote.

"This is something meaningful for moving forward," Williams said.

Reach Merlene Davis at (859) 231-3218 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3218, or mdavis1@herald-leader.com.

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