Grandberry Getting Out the Vote

Keith Grandberry

The late representative John Lewis with Keith Grandberry
I once asked the Reverend Jesse Jackson if voter apathy was the biggest threat to our democracy. “No,” he said. “The biggest threat is voter suppression.” Unfortunately, Jackson’s assessment has become all too real. In some states, minorities are purged from the voter rolls because they didn’t cast a ballot in a previous election. In other states, the number of early voting days and polling places have been reduced. In North Carolina if you vote early, then die before November 3, your vote doesn’t count. Meanwhile Voter ID is on the horizon, and now, as an increasing number of minorities choose to vote by mail, the Postmaster General has scrapped hundreds of sorting machines, and forced postal workers to leave bags of mail undelivered because overtime has been slashed. Add to that the practice of gerrymandering which all but assures the election of white candidates, and you can understand why people of color are concerned about this year’s elections. One of them is Keith Grandberry, but instead of just complaining about voter suppression, he’s taking steps to combat it.

Grandberry is the former CEO of the Winston-Salem Urban League, and now Founder of Helping Hands Consultants. On the global front, Keith has worked with leaders in underdeveloped nations to create new industry, and build libraries and hospitals. Back home, his passion is voter education, so he travels throughout a nine-state area to spearhead voter registration drives. The reason is simple. “The power of your voice is your vote,” says Grandberry.

I spoke with Keith recently about his tireless efforts to encourage people of color to exercise their vote.


JL: It seems like you’re on some sort of personal crusade.

KG: I am. The other day my daughter Shayla and I talked about the systematic racism that this country is dealing with. She spoke of the increasing number of innocent Black people who have died at the hands of police, like George Floyd, Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Breonna Taylor. And Shayla said that she and her friends make their voices heard by protesting. I certainly don’t discourage her from protesting at rallies and marches, but I told her that the most powerful form of protest is voting.

JL: But traditional protests can, themselves lead to reform, right?

KG: Absolutely. We all know about the marches that John Lewis participated in at great risk to his own safety, and those protests paved the way for passage of the Civil Rights Act. I have also worked closely with Winnie Mandela on some economic development projects, and she spoke to me of the protests that led to the end of Apartheid, and the election of her husband [Nelson Mandela] as president [of South Africa]. Those protests gave Black people a voice in their government. But here in America we already have the right to vote, and the right to participate in government. The problem is we don’t exercise that vote as we should.

JL: You’re referring to what happened in 2016.

KG: Yes. Blacks turned out in large numbers to vote for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. Yet, many of those same people didn’t show up at the polls in 2016, and that, in large part, led to an era of unprecedented voter suppression.

JL: You mentioned the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which was enacted by President Lyndon Johnson. I’ve heard that one of your favorite quotes came from LBJ.

KG: Yeah, after he signed the Voting Rights Act, Johnson said, “The vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men just because they are different from other men.”

JL: That’s inspiring, but do today’s Black youth get it? Do they even have an appreciation for folks who came before them?

KG: We have to remind them, and that brings me back to my daughter. I tell her all the time about the achievements of my heroes and mentors, like Mr. Bob Brown, who single-handedly created the Minority Business Enterprise program while he served in the Nixon administration. Like Vivian Burke who helped me establish an employment assistance center when I headed up the Urban League. Like Maya Angelou who advocated for women’s health issues, and for whom I was able to have a Triad-area hospital named after. Like Sylvia Sprinkle Hamlin who I worked with to set up a scholarship program for students at the School of the Arts. And like Congressman John Lewis, who hosted a meeting between me and Deputy President Baleka Mbete of South Africa to discuss voting and civic engagement. These were all strong individuals who made a difference, and young people can make a difference too, just by voting. The power of your voice is your vote.



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