When I was a teenager there were two places I wanted to go when I reached 18 years old. One was Johnny’s Liquor Store at the corner of Terrace Street and East Boulevard, and the other was the Registrar of Voters Office.
Johnny’s was a social and political hub of my community. Doctors, lawyers, schoolteachers, bricklayers, politicians and my dad all made Johnny’s the place to be, and I wanted to be in on the action.
Yes, alcohol was consumed there, but as an outsider, it seemed like folks had a lot to talk about, and everyone seemed interested.
When I reached 18, I excitedly marched into Johnny’s. But by then, its popularity was starting to wane. It was boring. The unintended outcome of the civil rights movement was that it steered black folk away from their community businesses.
On one occasion, I went into Johnny’s with my friend, Henry, who was just 15 or 16 years old. He couldn’t wait to enter. Two men pulled guns on each other that night. They were talked down by a third person, but Henry and I didn’t wait for the outcome.
The lead-up to my visit to the Registrar of Voters Office was quite different. I was growing up in the 1960s watching the civil rights movement unfold before me. I had seen the terrible images of the young voter registration workers and brave civil rights leaders being beaten and killed across the South.
I watched people in my community form voter registration groups that would later become influential political organizations. I listened, too.
When I was in my early teens, I worked in the city council campaign of Joe Delpit, who was trying to become Baton Rouge’s first black city councilman. I really didn’t know him; I knew only that he owned the wildly popular Chicken Shack restaurant on Lettsworth Street.
On Election Day, I was holding about 100 of his sample ballots that I was supposed to hand to people going to vote. I read the list, and I didn’t make much of it.
Truth is, my major concern was that around midday, someone was supposed to drive up and hand me a box of Delpit’s fried chicken, potato salad, green peas, a piece of cake and a slice of bread.
My next concern was being paid later that day. But to get paid, I had to go into an environment where people were talking politics and the importance of getting people to vote.
My dad and stepmom were in the mix, too. They worked in several local and state campaigns. I heard about voter strategy and where there needed to be cars to take old black people to vote.
I got so smitten by the politics that I once ran for Student Government Association president. My campaign slogan was “Don’t be a rat, vote for Pratt.” I can’t believe that didn’t push me over. My friend, David, won easily. Many years later, he was the musician and singer at my wedding, proving that political combatants can still be friends.
I continued to hear that this voting thing was very important — and even moreso in the black community. Unless the person “we” wanted to win was victorious, nothing would ever change in our community.
When I went to the Registrar of Voters Office, I proudly filled out my paperwork. I imagined that the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was approving what I was doing. I knew the old people in my neighborhood would be proud. When I received the voter card, I actually went to show it off.
I could only imagine what my late grandmother would have thought. She probably would have been afraid for me, knowing what she had witnessed growing up in rural Louisiana.
Johnny’s Liquor Store is no longer around. It died years ago. My voter registration? Well, let’s just say it gives me power — and lives forever. I’m out there every election because I know what it means. It’s my responsibility. I wish more people felt that way.
Edward Pratt, a former Advocate editor, is assistant to the chancellor for media relations at Southern University. His email address is email@example.com.