When Americans think of the voting and civil rights movements, names like Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, and Martin Luther King Jr. often spring to mind. Few people might remember that one of the key figures at the intersection of these two movements was a New Jersey man named Thomas Mundy Peterson: the first African-American to vote in a U.S. election.
Born to a slave in Metuchen in 1824, Peterson worked as a school custodian and general handyman in Perth Amboy. For much of his life, he watched as his state government fought against the march of progress.
The New Jersey Legislature waited an entire year after the federal government abolished slavery before doing the same in 1866. Four years later, the United States Congress finally passed the amendment granting African-Americans the right to vote. The next day, Peterson bravely went to the polls and cast his ballot in a town election, even as his own state objected and local poll goers jeered him.
The significance of his one vote could not have been greater.
Today, New Jerseyans continue to celebrate this historic achievement every year on March 31, the date that Thomas Mundy Peterson became the first African-American to vote in the United States.
It’s worth reminding ourselves that there was a time in our nation’s history when, for many Americans, casting a ballot was an act of extraordinary courage in the face of almost certain retribution. It took the brave and tireless work of so many generations before ours to ensure that all American adults have the right to participate in the world’s oldest and greatest democracy. Without the efforts of women and men like Thomas Mundy Peterson, I wouldn’t be allowed to vote, let alone serve as your U.S. senator.
Sadly, the fight is not over. Factions in our society would revert back to the discriminatory policies of some of the most unsavory times in our country’s past. Just last year, the Supreme Court overturned key provisions of the historic 1965 Voting Rights Act. Across the country, we see state legislatures imposing on us voter ID laws or preventing mail-in ballots. We must honor the legacies of our predecessors who fought on our behalf and defend against actions that drag America backwards.
The American ideal is that on Election Day, it doesn’t matter your gender, your age, your ethnicity, or how much money you donated – or didn’t – to political candidates; your vote is worth exactly the same amount as every other person’s who turns out to the polls. While we have yet to fully accomplish this in every corner of our nation, with our collective commitment it can one day become a reality for all Americans.
Our democracy only truly works when we all make our voices heard, so don’t ever squander your right. Every Election Day when you cast your vote, celebrate the power it holds; remember brave New Jerseyan Thomas Mundy Peterson and take pride in your participation in his legacy.
By Senator Cory Booker
Cory Booker represents New Jersey in the United States Senate and is the former Mayor of Newark.