"Stand Up, Speak Out: Princeton’s Citizens Find Their Voice,” opening on Wednesday, September 3, at the Historical Society of Princeton,” uses vintage photographs and other artifacts to examine the timely issues of political participation and voting rights, particularly through the experiences of women, African Americans, and university students. When denied the vote, how could individuals still be heard in a democracy? Once granted the vote, how could they make a difference?

The exhibit explores important episodes in our national history and their intersection with Princeton events, and focuses on how the promise of the Declaration of Independence was realized through acts and actions: in the 15th, 19th and 26th amendments, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the work of individuals in the anti-slavery, suffrage, civil rights, and youth movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

A convention at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848 marked the first organized demand by women for the vote. The early 1900s saw new strategies emerge: direct lobbying and dramatic, public, nonviolent action. In 1920, the League of Women Voters was founded at the National American Woman Suffrage Association convention, held just six months before women gained the right to vote. The League’s aim was to help the 20 million women living in the United States to be responsible voters, and use their soon-to-be ratified power to vote and help shape public policy. On October 13, 1932, Princeton women formed a branch of the League of Women Voters. Since its founding, the group has held public forums featuring local candidates, mailed election information sheets to registered voters, and advocated for public housing, children’s rights, and a host of other issues.

African-American equality seemed a distant promise when the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776. Neither it nor the Revolutionary War ended slavery. The enslaved were ineligible to vote. Most free African Americans could not meet property and taxpaying requirements for voting. Despite the abolition of slavery and the ratification of the 15th amendment, Jim Crow laws in the South shut the door to voting and political participation by African Americans throughout the late 19th and 20th century. Princeton’s African-American community experienced its own difficulties in participating in political life. By the 1960s, however, new citizen groups formed in Princeton to actively take up the struggle to give African-American citizens a political voice. In 1963, African-American citizens founded the Princeton Association for Human Rights (PAHR). Its goal was to have “full participation in the life of its community for all its citizens.” Other groups such as the John Witherspoon Civic Association and the Princeton Housing Group, along with churches, and faith-based leaders, worked to solve the issues of unemployment, poor housing, urban renewal, and inadequate education.

Twenty-one had been considered the age of political maturity since America’s founding. The age was based on English and colonial precedent, and it was hard to change. After every war, though, some argued that those who were old enough to fight should be able to vote. After World War II, the push to lower the voting age gathered steam. It took the Vietnam War in the 1960s, though, to bring about change. As the Vietnam War raged, young people on campuses across the country hoped to convince the American public and government of the hypocrisy of drafting 18-year olds to fight-and possibly die-when they had no political say. Princeton University students joined sit-ins and other actions against the Vietnam War in the late 1960s. In May 1970, reaction to President Nixon’s announcement that he was sending U.S. troops into Cambodia culminated in University’s largest protest to date. Debate and discussion among Princeton students, faculty, and administration led to a campus-wide strike against the war.

Throughout established democracies around the world, voter turnout has been declining over the past 40 years. It is a trend in the United States (where average voter turnout is about 50 percent), in Western Europe, in Japan, and in Latin America. Some countries, though, have exceptionally high turnouts. In Ethiopia, for example, voter turnout can be 90 percent and higher. How does the rest of the world vote? How does United States voting turnout compare to other countries?

“Stand Up, Speak Out” encourages visitors of all ages to participate in the democratic process — whether voting in a national, state, or local election, or standing up for an issue in which they believe.

“Stand Up, Speak Out: Princeton’s Citizens Find Their Voice,” opening on Wednesday, September 3, the Historical Society of Princeton, Bainbridge House, 158 Nassau Street. A curator’s talk will be held on Sunday, October 5 at 2 p.m. On view through July 5, 2009. Open Tuesday through Sunday, noon to 4 p.m. Admission is free. Donations are accepted. 609-921-6748 or www.princetonhistory.org.

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