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Jimmy Cunningham: Voting in the 1984 Presidential Primary, Arkansas

As told by Jimmy Cunningham
Little Rock, Arkansas

Story Narrative:

Jimmy wears a red, plaid shirt and blue jean overalls.

Between December 2019 and January 2020 (just weeks before the pandemic), Smithsonian staff and their storytelling partners at the Peale, Baltimore, traveled to multiple states in the U.S. to ask residents of those states about voting experiences, the current state of American democracy, what issues brought them to the polls, how they made a difference in their communities, and what Americans' civic responsibilities were, among other complex questions.

Jimmy Cunningham (00:01): Well, my first voting experience, I remember I'm from Palm Bluff, Arkansas, and it's a Delta town. And my first experience was when I was 18 years old. It was the presidential election of 1984, and I was voting in the Democratic primary. And in that town, African Americans had not up to that point, been able to vote to elect an African American president, I mean, African American mayor even though the town was 50% African American. I think at that time there was only one African American on the city council.

(00:46): So, they decided for the first time in a very long time to have a caucus rather than a primary. And I went to this caucus and my expectation in going to the caucus was that, you know, there will be a representative number of African Americans, but whatever the selection process is, is probably going to follow what has occurred before, which is that there was always more, there were always more barriers to engagement with African Americans.

(01:25): And so, I just kind of expected to see that in a caucus fashion. When I arrived, the caucus was at the Pine Bluff Convention Center, and that year, Jesse Jackson was running for president, which created a huge amount of enthusiasm in the community for someone who was representing the interest of these voters. I could not believe what I saw when I walked into the convention center. We were in the arena and there were African-American--old folks, young folks, middle age, people from the grassroots, from the university. They were all over the place.

(02:13): In fact, 80%, I'm guessing, of the folks that showed up for the caucus that day were African American. And it blew me away because it was the first time that I saw for myself this, the power that the African American community had reflected in a political event. I think Jesse Jackson went on to win the caucus vote for Jefferson County, even though he didn't win the votes in Arkansas, it was still a local lesson in what the possibilities were when a community can come together. So it was, that for me was the first time I was involved in a in a presidential election. And it was, it was a very memorable experience as such.

Asset ID: 2023.02.08-a-b
Themes: 1984, Democratic Primary, Caucus, Political Process, Voting, Elections, Mayor, African American history, Voting Rights, Jesse Jackson
Date recorded: December 4, 2019
Length of recording: 0:03:10
Related traveling exhibition: Voices and Votes: Democracy in America
Sponsor or affiliated organization: Arkansas Humanities Council, Little Rock
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