VOICES: In redistricting fight, civil rights advocates must see themselves as endurance runners

If you’ve ever met a long-form runner, you know that they are clear that their entire run is not joyous. Sometimes runners start out too fast and need to calibrate. Other times, they start out feeling heavy and tired, but as they move through the run, they gain energy and steam. Runners understand that there will be ups and downs during their runs – especially long runs – but that doesn’t deter them from pounding the pavement.

In the same way that runners appreciate that there will be challenges, people who fight for justice must understand this too.

While it’s been years since I have run consistently, I have spent my entire life working to advance civil rights. From the time I was in high school, I have worked to further civil rights through advocacy and policy. Although I became an elected official in 1986, I spent the majority of the 1980s under the tutelage of former Ohio State Representative C.J. McLin and former Ohio Congressman Tony Hall, who helped inspire in me a hunger for social justice. Watching them, I learned that civil rights work requires commitment.

Ohioans need this sort of lens when considering the current struggle over fair maps. On at least three occasions, the Ohio Supreme Court has ruled the state’s maps unconstitutional. Unfortunately, the Ohio Legislature has failed to develop equitable and fair maps that allow Ohioans to elect candidates of choice. And let’s be clear: Ohioans deserve maps that allow them the confidence to know that if they turn out, their votes will be counted, and they’ll have a realistic shot of electing preferred candidates.

The reality for Ohio voters is much different. Whether hubris or contempt for the constitution, the Legislature has failed to create fair maps. While the state will soon begin yet another redrawing process on Sept. 13, Ohioans must insist that ordinary voters are driving the process. Because the Legislature hasn’t done the right thing, it is time to place the map-drawing power in the hands of ordinary people. And we cannot relent until there are fair maps – that means we turn into endurance runners who are committed to running until we get what we want.

I offer this analogy confidently because I understand about the civil rights movement what most people don’t: The civil rights movement evolved, but it never ended. We will never get to a point where there is not a struggle for right vs. wrong or good vs. evil. As long as humanity exists, there will be a struggle for justice. While Black people won the right to vote and many other basic rights, we are always struggling toward a more just democracy.

Just like marathons – the civil rights journey is lengthy. If it was a sprint, there would be a finite beginning and ending. But civil rights work is endurance work. We enter it knowing that we’ll need to be endurance runners and go the distance. This means that we are not permanently deterred by maps that do not represent us. We just double down and keep pushing.

That includes when things go well and when we struggle. And contrary to public perception, we aren’t limited to one struggle. Just because we struggle with redistricting doesn’t mean we won’t have other challenges. We expect a struggle over early voting, polling place resources, provisional ballots and more. We expect that we’ll need to defend and protect democracy – and possibly repeatedly.

While advocates must understand that they are in the fight for justice for the long term, we need elected officials who understand our community, know our condition and can advocate on our behalf. We need elected officials who understand that we all – including elected leaders – play a role.

Ordinary people who are not vested in partisanship present the most likely option for drawing maps that reflect the state’s diversity and Ohio voters’ diverse preferences. Ohioans deserve better than maps drawn in secrecy without regard for citizen input. But for this to happen, we must commit to staying in the race for the long term. We cannot tap out in the face of recalcitrant policymakers. We must persist.

Tom Roberts is the president of the Ohio Conference of the NAACP and a member of the Ohio Organizing Collaborative.

About the Author