One day in Alabama, in 1968, as farmers worked in their fields, a small airplane swooped into view. The farmers looked up wonderingly as papers fluttered out of the plane, into the sky and came swirling down to earth all around them. The papers were flyers about the upcoming elections—flyers with a picture of an eagle and the names of the candidates the pilot of the airplane liked the best.
That pilot was John L. Cashin. He hoped those farmers would vote for the candidates of the National Democratic Party, a political party he founded to help African Americans run in Alabama's elections. He wanted the farmers, and everyone else, to know that these candidates, if elected, would use their positions in government to make life better and more fair for the farmers, their families, and all their neighbors.
John Cashin was not only a pilot, he was a dentist, too, and a husband, and a father of three children. He himself had run for mayor in his town, Hunstville, Alabama. He did not win. Later in his life, he would run for governor of the state of Alabama. He didn't win that election, either, but then again, he had not expected to win.
In those days in Alabama, African Americans had little chance of winning public office. Even though about one third of Alabama's people were Black, the Alabama state government had no elected officials who were African American. Very few Blacks ran for election. Very few Blacks could even vote in elections. They were kept away by unfair laws—sometimes called "Jim Crow" laws—and by threats of violence by white people who did not want their black neighbors to vote.
So, with so little chance to win, why did John L. Cashin run for mayor, and then for governor? Well, John was an activist who understood the power of public witness. And he had made a promise when he was 11 years old, to do whatever he could to get Blacks involved in the political process and to speak out against the injustices that kept them away. Every time John Cashin put his name on a ballot and his picture on election posters and flyers, he caught the dreams of other African Americans in Alabama. Campaign speeches gave him a chance to make some noise for justice, and speak out against laws that were not fair to African Americans.
When John Cashin formed the National Democratic Party, he chose as its symbol, an eagle—the well-known symbol of American freedom. With eagles printed all over their flyers and signs and posters, the National Democratic Party made sure even blacks who could not read could vote for justice-loving candidates, the ones with the eagles by their names. Soon, African Americans in Alabama were running for sheriff, city councils, and judgeships—and the National Democratic Party helped get many get elected.
Cashin did not have to witness alone. His family, his Unitarian Universalist congregation in Huntsville, Alabama, and many other UUs and friends joined him. They came to his rallies, made their own speeches to support him, and helped him raise money to run for elections. Like John, they believed that to witness against the wrongs committed against African Americans was an important way to show their faith.
Over time in Alabama, more African Americans voted. More African Americans ran for public office, and won. As more African Americans became part of the Democratic and Republican parties, John Cashin's National Democratic Party was less important for public witness, and it was dissolved.
John Cashin died in 2011. We can be a new generation witnessing for justice. Every time we speak up against a wrong or support people to speak up for themselves, we are part of John Cashin's legacy. He witnessed for the justice he wanted to see in his community and in our nation—an America where everyone's vote is counted.
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Last updated on Tuesday, July 9, 2013.
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