Madeline McCloud said she was with Martin Luther King, Jr. when he was arrested in Albany, Georgia in 1961. She was there in the prison — one of 28 women sharing a cell meant for four.
She took a year off school to travel with King and the Freedom Riders, fearless all of the way. Then, she held her 1-year-old daughter in her arms and sobbed when she learned King had been assassinated.
“In my lifetime, I’ve seen so much happen,” she said. “I’ve been through a lot. But that’s also why I still have hope today.”
That hope is what brought McCloud, 71, to Gainesville’s Bo Diddley Community Plaza for Empowerment Sunday. After seeing the progress minority groups have made since the days of the Freedom Riders, McCloud said hope is why she waited in the sunny downtown plaza, anticipating the arrival of a King once again: Martin Luther King III.
McCloud is the membership chairwoman for Alachua County’s chapter of the NAACP. She sat at a table with registration information pamphlets spread in front of her. Her goal is to increase membership in the local chapter, and she saw Empowerment Sunday as an opportunity to reach out to potential members. She believes voting is the key to moving society forward.
“If we don’t get out the vote,” McCloud said, “many of our gains, especially among minorities, are going to be taken from us.”
Empowerment Sunday is used to rally voters to vote early before the busy workweek starts. It targets churchgoers, particularly in the African American community, and encourages them to head to the polls right after church ends.
The African American Accountability Alliance of Alachua County organized the event, which lasted from 1 to 5 p.m. Local political action organizations and officials running for office set up tents and booths around the perimeter of the plaza. A group served food to people who wandered over from the polls, exchanging “I voted” stickers for free lunch.
Looking over the plaza, watching people enter and exit the polls in the county administration building, McCloud said she wanted to see a lot of traffic.
“America is hurting. Period,” McCloud said. “We have got to increase our voting strength. We’ve got to re-energize our people.”
As voters milled around the plaza, eating lunch and chatting, the Eastside High School gospel choir performed to a crowd of about 100. The choir swayed and sang until a black sedan rolled up behind the Bo Diddley stage. Out stepped U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown and her friend, Martin Luther King III.
Eastside’s choir was ushered back on stage, introducing King to the crowd with a fresh melody. Stepping up to the lectern at the front of the stage, King addressed the crowd after a flurry of snapshots, selfies and handshakes.
With Brown by his side, King spoke about the importance of increasing voter turnout in Gainesville, receiving intermittent applause and a chorus of “yes” from the crowd.
“My father used to say that a voteless people is a powerless people,” he said. “One of the most important steps we can take is the step to the ballot box.”
King said it was important for him to visit cities like Gainesville, particularly because of his father’s legacy.
“My father and his team and many others gave their lives so that people who were excluded would have the right to vote,” King said. “I am totally dedicated to carrying this battle to encourage young people to get involved in the political process or even offer themselves for office.”
Diyonne McGraw, president of the African American Accountability Alliance of Alachua County, or 4As PAC, said on Empowerment Sunday she felt the organization was able to provide the community with an important opportunity to vote.
“If you don’t take advantage of it, we can write our obituary on Nov. 5,” she said. “It’s going to be detrimental. The governor’s race is extremely important.”
At the time Brown spoke, about 789 people had voted that day — she wanted 1,000. McGraw said she thinks most people don’t vote because they feel their votes don’t count and there is a lack of trust in politicians. She said getting people to vote is hard because it’s an effort to change mindsets.
King echoed that belief and said some elections are won by just a few votes. He said people have no choice but to pay taxes, but they do have a say in what happens to their money.
“If you don’t vote, you don’t have a right to complain,” King said. “You must participate if you want to be able to say something is wrong.”
King said early voting on Sunday is especially important because it gives more people the opportunity to vote; he thought there should be four Sundays to vote at minimum.
For McCloud, voting is about creating real change in the community. She said she saw many changes decades ago with the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, Jr. She said she saw her community come out of the shadows and now wants to see all groups come together to effect change.
“I will never give up hope that we can make those gains again,” McCloud said. “But it’s going to take getting out the vote to change the mindset of people who feel hopeless and helpless.”