Flonzie Brown-Wright was the first Black woman to hold an elected public office in post-reconstruction Mississippi. Credit: Zachary Oren Smith, Mississippi Today

STARKVILLE — Mississippi State University students were urged by panelists here Wednesday to become participants in the political process as candidates as well as by voting.

“I do believe strongly that we need to more actively participate in the voter registration and education process. Voting is the key,” said Flonzie Brown-Wright, the first black woman to hold an elected public office in Mississippi.

“But I would encourage those of you who may be considering it to run for public office,” she said during a panel discussion hosted by the university’s African American Studies program, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary.

The panel discussion, titled “James Meredith and the March Against Fear,” included U.S. Air Force veteran James Meredith, the first black student enrolled at the University of Mississippi and Hollis Watkins, the first Mississippi youth to join the 1961 Voting Rights Project of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), along with Brown-Wright.

Though most of the panel was devoted to telling stories from the Meredith’s March Against Fear, on which he was gunned down and the march was completed by other Civil Rights activists, Brown-Wright connected those events to the present.

“What was the Civil Right Movement all about?” Brown-Wright asked. “The crux, the heart of the movement was that we as African Americans or Blacks or Coloreds or Negroes — whatever we were referred to — we did not have the right to vote. We were delegated from first class citizens because if you don’t register, if you don’t vote, you do not have a voice.”

Wright-Brown suggested to the young people gathered for the panel discussion that it is necessary for them to run for office too.

In her recent book “Out of the Running,” Dr. Shauna Shames of Rutgers University writes that even highly politically motivated millennials don’t believe a career in politics is the best way to create change.

They view the political system as corrupt and inefficient, Shames found. They cited fundraising, media attention and the loss of privacy as reasons for disinterest in a career in politics, she wrote.

Shames based her findings on interviews with 50 graduate students at elite institutions that have a historical record of sending graduates to state and federal elected offices: Harvard Law, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and Boston’s Suffolk University Law School.

Wright-Brown pointed to the power the office she was elected to in 1968: “The election commissioners position is the most powerful position in government.”

For those unfamiliar with the job, she noted: “Election commissioners decide where polling places will be. They certify elections. They decide who is going to work on the polls and registered voters vote to put people in office who will have our best interests at heart or not.”

“They do a lot of things that actually control the voter registration process,” Wright-Brown said.

Monay Pierre, a fashion merchandising student from Horn Lake said that listening to the panelists was inspiring. Where before she didn’t feel much of a connection to running for office, now she says she would give that a second thought.

“I really think I would run for office,” Pierre said. “Sitting in there you realize how much they fought for us.”

“I would be wasting my seat,” she continued. “I don’t know that I’m a leader, but like they said, ‘We’re all just one person.’ Even the people in office.  There is a lot of power in thinking that way.”

Brianica Pryor studies Business management at Mississippi State University. Credit: Zachary Oren Smith, Mississippi Today

Brianica Pryor, a sophomore business management major, said that she has thought about running for office because she has benefited from mentors that helped her see herself in leadership positions.

“We need mentors to help lead us on this path to leadership,” Pryor said. “I feel like a lot of us think there are others that may (lead) better than us. We’re so used to the internship process that we think without even a little experience we shouldn’t (run for office).”

The panel discussion came more than 50 years after President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Looking around at the young people assembled to hear the panel — some for class credit or requirement — Brown-Wright shook her head.

“I like to think that every person in this auditorium tonight has registered and that every time there is an election, you vote,” Wright-Brown said.

James Meredith was the first black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi. Credit: Zachary Oren Smith, Mississippi Today

“I think about all the people that lost their lives. The people I’ve seen beaten,” she continued. “If I think about the roll that I could call from now until morning of people who died, who went to jail, who gave their lives, all to have in this past election 14 million Democrats stay home, that’s a shame! That’s a shame.”

According to the University of Florida’s United States Election Project, in the 2016 presidential election voters age 18-29 were 30 percent less likely to turn out to vote.

Data also shows that on non-presidential elections, voters participation for 18-29 population is cut in half. Though they make up 31 percent of the overall electorate, only 46 percent of eligible millennials polled by PEW Research Center said they voted.

Wright-Brown’s comments were reflected by the faculty member on stage, Dr. Aram Goudsouzian, who said, “What we are getting at here, is that it comes down to changing policy.”

“If you want to change mass incarceration, you have to elect people who will change policy. If you want to change racist treatment, you have to elect people who will change racist policy,” Goudsouzian said.

“If you are registered to vote and you stay at home on election day,” Wright-Brown said, “you are just throwing that vote right out the window.”

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