It’s Friday evening. The air is cool and the sky is clear. A group of well-dressed men and women gather at Empowerment Temple in West Baltimore at an event designed to spur people to register and vote in the upcoming election and those that will follow.
Inside the church, a panel of distinguished guests has their audience's full attention. CNN commentator Roland Martin asked the panel–including the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, former Rep. John Conyers, BET commentator Jeff Johnson, Bishop Vashti McKenzie and several others–what they perceived to be the biggest problem among Blacks and how that problem could be resolved.
The debate moved from one point to another. Jackson got a standing ovation after he claimed that the law does not work in favor of African Americans. “When black kills white, its jail time, when white kills black, its riot time and when black kills black, its Miller time.," Jackson said. Another panelist member said that with the current generation, main stream hip hop is pushing death through ITunes. McKenzie said that women have to be, “sick and tired of being sick and tired” and that if women want to change the negative portrayals of them in the media, then they must stop funding it. Johnson made all the black men in the room stand. He asked them to look around at each other and emphasized that there was significance to this symbolism. Decades ago, “Black men were in uniform,” he said, adding that Black men used to be trained to stand in the front line in their communities.
“Whether it was black folks or white folks, it said that our lives matter and men are going to defend the lives of those in the community,” Johnson said.
The three day event, which started Aug. 16, was entitled "Code Red: It’s A State of Emergency." The goal was to inform, urge voters to get out on Election Day and also to deputize others to register voters.
"We…want to put the power back into the hands of the people,” said Dr. Jamal Bryant, founder and pastor of Empowerment Temple, before the event. "Attendees can then go back home and register the people in their communities, in their homes, and in their fraternities and sororities. It's an incredible opportunity that we've not taken advantage of. "
Bryant says the idea for the conference was sparked a few months ago when he saw an African American pastor and legislator, Del. Emmett C. Burns (D-Baltimore County), stating in national news that he would be staying home on Election Day because of President Obama’s stance on gay marriage.
“With the church being nonpartisan, you can vote for anybody, but to not participate in the democratic process at all would be a very dangerous precedent,” said Bryant.
Burns, pastor of The Rising Sun Baptist Church in Woodlawn, Md., later told the AFRO he changed his mind and would be casting a ballot on Nov. 6 because not doing so “would be the wrong thing to do.”
Day one of the Code Red conference focused on will focus on the lack of a common Black agenda, something Bryant says every group of Americans except African Americans have.
"Where do we want to see the Black community in four years? What are we asking the next president to do, whether it's President Obama or Romney,” said Bryant.
“I want to see an investigation into how the prison system has become the new plantation. We need to turn that around. I'd like to see more funding for our public schools and an economic plan that pushes entrepreneurship and investment. I want our young people who are at the lowest economic stratus to still have an opportunity to compete on a global scale.
“We need to be spending the night at the polls so that our voices are heard and our agenda is met,” he said.
Attendees of Friday’s session will walk away prepared to register voters.
"This isn't just about the presidential election this year,” said Marvin Randolph , senior vice president of campaigns for the NAACP, in an interview. “Across this nation, mayors are being elected, sheriffs and police commissioners will be appointed…Many things in our communities are affected by the ballot box. The black church has always been a very important part of both educating African American people about voting and making sure people understand what's at stake.”
Civil rights organizations across the country are predicting that the wave of new voter I.D. laws could have a devastating effect on the next election. According to the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, 5 million voters stand to become disenfranchised on Election Day due to laws that have changed requirements to cast a ballot and registration periods.
Seven states, are requiring voters to show a state-issued I.D. in order to vote, which poses a problem for out-of-state college students. The report also shows that 13 states have introduced legislation to end same-day registration and voting. In Alabama, Kansas, and Tennessee, proof of citizenship is now required in order to vote, meaning voters will have to show a document, like a birth certificate, before receiving a ballot.
After several standing ovations and heated debated between the panelists, the evening ended with a couple of selection from a choir and a benediction from Bryant. The forum can be viewed on the Empowerment Temple website. Bryant left the audience with something to think about as they prepared to exit his church.
“We are in a crisis," he said. "Sound the alarms!”