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Newark's Project Ready Civil Rights Art Museum Highlights Voting Power

By Mark J. Bonamo

Published: April 6, 2023

For many people, voting in a democratic society is just a mundane tick of a box or press of a button. But a new pop-up museum in downtown Newark, called the Voting Power Experience, is public art that makes a point. It serves as a reminder of the sacrifices made to gain the right to vote, a reassertion of its importance, and a rallying cry to promote the power of voting at a time when democracy itself is under threat. "We saw last year only 3 percent of voters turn out in the Newark school board election. That's not enough," said Newark native Shennell McCloud, the CEO of Newark-based non-profit civic advocacy group Project Ready. "What we've decided is to become more innovative in our approach to be able to actually activate voters across the city."

The approach of the Voting Power Experience, located at 79 University Avenue near the corner of James Street, is meant to be interactive and immersive. 

Exhibits include a sample 1960s lunch counter where civil rights protestors were purposely not served and were pelted with food. A set of pews is surrounded by models of the girls who were murdered by white supremacist terrorists at the 1963 firebombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, their dresses singed black on the bottom. Voter suppression tactics such as the "jellybean test" are depicted. 

A sample classroom tells the story of Ruby Bridges, the first African-American child to desegregate her New Orleans elementary school in 1960. Museum-goers can get on a Freedom Ride bus, sitting among cut-outs of civil rights icons such as Rosa Parks, Amiri Baraka, John Lewis, and Stacey Abrams. 

Local artists who made murals and paintings explained how they hope their work adds meaning and motivation to the ongoing cause of voting rights. 

"You have to sell the idea of voting," muralist Malcolm Rolling said. "Culturally we get so caught up on the big elections, that we forget how important the local elections are. If you don't participate, your community suffers." 

"A lot of people have forgotten the importance of voting," artist Suliman Onque said. "People died for this, and it shouldn't be in vain. We need reminders to regroup and recalibrate so we can take this further. Don't stop, and don't forget about voting. It's still important."

"As you go through this and look at what's happening now, you have to think about what's to come. You have to think about where we're going," said artist and professor Antoinette Ellis-Williams, in a nod to voting complications in many parts of the country spurred in part by the Supreme Court overturning key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in the summer of 2013. "You have taken the mantle of those who have fought and those who have died. You're not standing alone." 

Mekenya Ramirez came to the museum as way to express her belief in the power of numbers.

"A lot of people think that they don't have power, but it's the opposite. If people seek out experiences like this, it will encourage them to make sure that their voices are heard." Ramirez, who goes to college in Newark, said. "Racism and white supremacy is alive and well. We can see that with Donald Trump. Gov. Ron DeSantis is taking away the teaching of civil rights. The younger generation has to make sure we know the past so that we don't repeat it in the future." 

Voters in Newark will have a chance to makes their voices heard in important elections in the near future. The school board elections will be held on April 25 (The last day to apply by mail for a Vote-By-Mail Ballot is April 18). The June 6 party primaries will determine who will locally be on the ballot when all 120 seats in the state Legislature are up for grabs in November.

Turnout in recent elections in Newark has been disappointing. Besides the aforementioned 3 percent turnout in the April 2022 school board elections, citywide turnout in the 2022 mayoral election was just under 10 percent. Turnout stood at 20 percent for the 2021 gubernatorial and legislative elections, while under 5 percent of Newark voters came out in the 2022 Democratic primary. These totals betray projected results in a city that is supposed to be a voting powerhouse.

For McCloud, these type of numbers add a sense of urgency when encouraging Newarkers to go to the museum, then go to the polls. 

"Some people would say that in both New Jersey and Newark there's no threat to democracy. I push back on that because the reality is democracy is as safe as we are active," McCloud said. "And if we are not active, and if we're not voting, then we're not safe." 

The Voting Power Experience museum will open to the public on Friday, April 7, from 3-8 p.m. and will be open through June 30th on most Fridays (3-8 p.m.), Saturdays (11 a.m.-5 p.m.), Sundays (11 a.m.-5 p.m.) and Mondays (3-8 p.m.). Click here for free tickets and additional information. 

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