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High School Students Shine in Black History Month Contest

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—The NJSBA Minorities in the Profession Section (MIPS) culminated its Black History Month celebration with a reception in recognition of the essay contest winners in the section’s annual Black History Month Contest. The event was held on Feb. 22 at the New Jersey Law Center and featured abstract artist Teri Richardson and a keynote address from Attorney General Peter Harvey.

Richardson’s work will be on display in the Board Room at the Law Center throughout March during Women’s History Month.

The Association of Black Women Lawyers and Garden State Bar Association joined MIPS as cosponsors in the event.

New Jersey high school students voiced their opinions on “Disenfranchisement of the Minority Voter” in essays and posters as part of the MIPS Black History Month contest this February. A total of 78 entries were received from a broad cross-section of New Jersey schools.

The first-place winners in both the essay and poster contest tackled the subject matter in a way that looked forward to the future while keeping an eye toward the past.

In his winning essay, Sinclair Sharp, a junior at J.P. Stevens High School in Edison, started by asking his grandfather about his first voting experience for a presidential candidate. Although his grandfather succeeded in voting for Harry Truman in a 1948 North Carolina setting, the older man wondered out loud to his questioning grandson if “they lied to him,” once he thought about state and local practices to suppress the rights of black voters at that time.

From that starting point, Sinclair submitted a chronology of progress from poll taxes, literacy tests and Jim Crow laws to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the work of Civil Rights leaders such as Martin Luther King and other activists.

“My hopes as a Black male and the collective hopes of all Americans who want to continue the progress, rest in the hands of America’s voting-age youth,” Sinclair wrote.

Sinclair provided, in a nutshell, a description and reasoning for voting disenfranchisement. “The disenfranchised voter in this country is discouraged from voting because they still live in poverty, they still face discrimination and their elected officials do not represent them at the highest levels of government. This creates a cycle that keeps minorities in the grips of poverty.”

While addressing the issue of under-representation and misrepresentation of African-Americans and other minorities by elected officials, Sinclair also got to the root of the problem and proposed a possible solution. “If minority groups hope to hold their elected officials to a higher standard of accountability for their community’s interests, they must become active voters,” he wrote.

He then warned elected officials that if that happens and they fail to keep their promises, “they will be faced with the withdrawal of crucial voter support from minorities.”

Sinclair used the 1992 presidential election to demonstrate his point. As a result of “a multi-cultural base of voters,” the Democrats reclaimed majorities in both the upper and lower houses of the U.S. Congress as 39 African-Americans, 19 Hispanic-Americans, seven Asian-Americans and one Native-American joined Congress. He also noted that since 1976, there had not been a Democrat in the White House, but with the help of minority voters, William Jefferson Clinton was elected president.

The first-place essay contest winner summed up his paper with a vision for the future. “The benefits for the minority community will grow as the disenfranchised people of this nation find their political voice.”

A view to the future, a view to the past and creative symbolism earned Parisa Kharazi of Franklin High School a first prize in the poster contest for her entry, “Election Day 2005!”

Kharazi drew a transparent voting box that showed the present voting process and how that vote brings a new beginning. In the voting box were also reminders of how far the minority community has come in exercising that right.

On the new beginning side, a hand places a ballot in the box. Once it is inserted, the ballot turns into an American flag, and at the end of the flag are two hands, one black and one white, extended to shake and they are illuminated by a flash of light. The headline reads, “A new beginning….”

On the other side of the box is a young girl with a tear falling from her eye, but those tears turn into doves of peace. “Many people went through a lot of hardship and the tears represent that as well as slavery and racism,” said Kharazi about her poster.

“Their tears resulted in peace and their use of nonviolence resulted in peace.”

In the center of the drawing are a rake, a sack of cotton and a pair of shackles that are opened. “These items are abandoned,” said Kharazi. “They show that African-Americans dropped these things and left them behind.”

Kharazi wanted to demonstrate the change that occurs when someone votes versus not voting, or not having the right to vote. She drew the outside of the box in black and white and used color for the inside. “The black and white outside of the box shows that things were really bad back when African-Americans didn’t have the right to vote,” she said. “Once the ballot is placed in the box and an American gets their vote, they’re seen as equal. All people are now united. Blacks and whites are Americans together.”

Voter apathy among young people was a focus for the second and third place essay winners, Jamie Leacock of Howell High School and Akil Kumarasamy of J.P. Stevens High School.

“Young Americans today find themselves bored and lost when it comes to politics,” wrote Leacock.

Explaining that a lack of interest and a sense that politicians who don’t live in the ghetto are out of touch with those residents, Leacock wrote, “The children then think, Well if they don’t care about how we live, why should we bother to vote?”

However, the Howell High School student used the second half of her essay to illustrate the importance of exercising the right to vote, “especially minorities.” Challenging her readers, she wrote, “Would you want someone else to decide your future when you have the power to do so at your very own fingertips?”

Leacock wrote that she can’t wait to vote in the next election so she can make a difference in society. “A vote is a change for the better.”

In the opening paragraphs of Kumarasamy’s entry, she describes an eighteen-year old neighbor who overslept and never voted. The message from the first page is that today’s youth need to pay attention to the hard-fought battles and suffering endured by Civil Rights activists in Selma and Birmingham, and that no matter the obstacles they faced, “men and women risked their lives for an invisible right as tangible as Martin Luther Kings’ words, I have a dream.” Kumarasamy reminds her youthful peers, “The struggle of the past is a fight for the present. The power of the people resides in their choices and observance of the law.”

The second and third place winners of the poster contest were Antonio Fernandez of the Camden County Youth Center and Brittany Chapman of Cinnaminson High School.

Fernandez illustrated a man behind voting booth curtains casting his ballot. The design was reinforced with the slogans Voting Is Free, The Choice Is Up To You and Make Your Vote Count For Today And Tomorrow.

Chapman used an American flag background with the faces of youthful potential voters framed in stars in her third place entry. Everyone’s a star when a vote is cast, according to Chapman and the slogans on her poster included Your Vote Counts, America Is Not America Without You, and One Person-One Vote-One Wish, among others.

The New Jersey State Bar Association, incorporated in 1899, is dedicated to the continuing education of lawyers and the public, to reforming and improving the legal system and to aiding in the administration of justice.