As we sit on the cusp of perhaps the most important election of my lifetime, there’s little I could say to change your minds about who to vote for. But I am hoping to take a few minutes of your Sunday to implore you to vote — if you haven’t done so already.
Voting is an issue that’s deeply personal to my family. Growing up in Miami in the ’70s, my parents told my siblings and me the stories of Dr. King and John Lewis, Fannie Lou Hamer and Barbara Jordan. But they also told the stories of our ancestors — David and Rosa Thomas, and Calvin and Millie Johnson.
David Thomas, my great-grandfather, was a runaway slave who fled from North Carolina through swamps and woods to find safety in the hills of Virginia. He endured the unimaginable and eventually got to vote.
Calvin Johnson, my great-great-grandfather, never did. His wife, Millie, had begged him not to go to the courthouse to try to vote in Mississippi at the end of Reconstruction (around 1880), in the face of threats from the Ku Klux Klan. But he went — and never came back. Instead, Millie Johnson remembered seeing a stranger walk up the dusty road to her house weeks later, knowing in her gut that this was the bad news she suspected was coming.
Susan Johnson Anderson, the daughter of Calvin and Millie Johnson, next to her husband, Randall T. Anderson.
As you know, my family’s story is not unique. I was especially reminded of this when one of my colleagues at OZY dug up a deeply powerful story that came to my desk several days ago. It might just be the most important story you’ll read all year. It is a little-known story about voter suppression and a Black massacre exactly 100 years ago in the little town of Ocoee, Florida.
I’ve excerpted the first few paragraphs below. I hope you will read it and share it with others. As a Floridian and as a proud voter, I think it could be the most compelling argument I have ever seen for why it’s not just our right, but our duty, to help shape our country’s politics. Had our ancestors not done that in their time, we wouldn’t enjoy the rights we do today.
My colleagues at OZY and I would like to encourage you to join us to commit to our “Plus Two” campaign this election season, by not only voting yourself, but also getting two other people to vote who are currently not likely to do so. Pick up the phone, send a text — or forward this email if you think it could help convince someone who is on the fence about voting.
I’m so encouraged by the fact that more than 90 million people have already voted early. In a year that has brought unparalleled tragedies to millions of families, this hunger to collectively invest in our future is a reminder of the power of democracy.
But there’s more we can do. If everyone reading this got their Plus Two, the OZY community could mobilize significant new numbers of voters. I hope that, somewhere, David and Rosa Thomas, Calvin and Millie Johnson and the former residents of Ocoee might be smiling with pride.
As was generally the case with lynching, the medium itself was the message. And if that wasn’t enough, there was also a sign. The note that the white mob attached to the dead body of Julius “July” Perry reportedly read:
Hours before, Perry had been a prosperous Black landowner, a labor leader, a church deacon and a respected member of his community living out the American Dream amid the orange tree groves and sugar cane fields of Central Florida. Then, a century ago on Nov. 2, 1920, Election Day, Perry’s prosperity and the thriving existence of the Black neighborhoods of his hometown of Ocoee came to an abrupt halt.
Perry’s lynching was just the start: The white men responsible for it shot, injured and killed dozens of other Black residents, including children. They burned their houses and churches to the ground. Almost the entire Black population, up to 500 people, fled the town, abandoning their homes and possessions, never to return. The Ocoee massacre remains the worst incident of election violence in U.S. history, and the forgotten — and intentionally buried — story of how one small-town community’s exercise of its constitutional rights transformed into an episode of unthinkable racial cleansing that still has the power to shock a century later.