Upcoming DA race in Philadelphia is crucial for African Americans

A protester acts out the killing of Tamir Rice in the Public Square during the RNC in Cleveland, Ohio on Tuesday, July 19, 2016.

THE MORE THINGS change, the more they stay the same.

That phrase is a truism that transcends the differences between us. Yet for blacks in America, the words cut especially deep.

That's because for us, the criminal-justice system has too often resembled an injustice system, and although there has been progress, the racism at its core looks much the same as it did 70 years ago. Now, after watching that system denigrate and demean them, shoot them and kill them, railroad and abuse them, many young African Americans have decided that voting is an exercise in futility.

But I need young African Americans in Philadelphia to know this. The May 16 election will essentially decide our city's next district attorney, and if you choose to stand on the sidelines, you will hand power to those who would oppress you.

I know this because the more things change, the more they stay the same.

I know you are angry because you are painted as violent and disruptive. I know you are fighting the racist claim that you are inherently inferior. I know that your cries of "Black Lives Matter," are met cynically with "All Lives Matter," in an effort to blunt your legitimate criticism of a system that unjustly targets you.

But don't worry. These tactics are warmed-over versions of past schemes that have been used to undermine black movements. Our people have overcome them before. And they did so without the tools you now have at your disposal.

I urge you to make use of the facts that strengthen your movement. To utilize the technology you've so effortlessly mastered. To fearlessly tell the stories of those who have fallen. And then, I urge you to vote.

Vote because an unarmed black college student named Philippe Holland was critically injured when police shot him in West Philly. Vote because a Cleveland policeman killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice. Vote because Sandra Bland died in custody, and Freddie Gray died post-custody, and Khalief Browder committed suicide after being unjustly jailed as a teen.

Vote because black men made up 40 percent of unarmed people shot and killed by police in 2015, though black men make up only 6 percent of the nation's population.

Vote because history has taught us that when blacks cede political power - either voluntarily or by force - we are exposed to a criminal justice system in which race too often determines outcomes. And when that happens, carnage ensues.

I know this because the more things change the more they stay the same.

That truth was reinforced for me when I spoke with Gilbert King, the author of Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2013.

The book chronicles the story of Walter Irvin, Charles Greenlee, Samuel Shepherd and Ernest Thomas - four black men who were falsely accused of raping a 17-year-old white woman named Norma Padgett in 1948.

After the men were arrested on the trumped-up charges, Thomas escaped and was killed following a manhunt. Police coerced false confessions from two of the three remaining men through torture. Greenlee was sentenced to life, while Irvin and Shepherd received death sentences.

But it didn't end there. King told me in a radio interview that Groveland's sheriff, Willis McCall, shot Irvin and Shepherd while transporting them, then falsely claimed the two men tried to escape. Irvin survived the shooting, and a cameraman filmed Irvin moving after the sheriff claimed Irvin was dead.

It was, King told me, a moment much like those we see in videos of modern-day police shootings. And though Irvin testified against the sheriff at trial, the outcome was similar to what happens when police shoot black people today. The sheriff never served a day in jail. In fact, he kept his job for years.

That case, so closely mirroring the stories we hear too often in modern-day America, could serve as bitter justification for those who have given up on voting. Or it could serve as a cautionary tale.

In 1949, blacks were forcibly prevented from voting under penalty of death. That system allowed false accusations racist mobs, and rogue police to take black lives with impunity.

But as blacks have gained political power, incremental change has taken place.

Florida has apologized to the families of the Groveland Four. Police captains in Philadelphia engage in prayer walks with members of the community. Cities pay out millions in settlements to the families of the murdered and abused.

Still, none of this is enough. In a system that is strained by the mass incarceration of black and brown people, those who would abuse our young people depend on our refusal to vote.

If we accommodate them by staying home on May 16, we essentially consent to systemic abuse.

And the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Solomon Jones is the author of 10 books. Listen to him mornings from 7 to 10 on WURD (900-AM).