America has always had a shameful history when it comes to blacks and the vote. Since the Civil War when blacks were given the right to vote, wink-wink; although, it really did not! There were many ways created to circumvent the process; remember it did not give the right to vote to black women! They said they did this because by claiming to give the right to vote to them was supposed to make them think they were free. I remind you of this because it is election time now and blacks are about to be hoodwinked again! Let’s be clear, black people have always been marginalized and not seen as central to our society.
Society’s context has changed, somewhat, there are many links between the freedom struggle of the 1950s and 1960s and today. The Voting Rights Act (VRA), signed into law on Aug. 6, 1965, was a victory for the Civil Rights Movement but was it democracy. It outlawed strategies that had been used by white supremacists to disenfranchise Black citizens. Together with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act ended some legal forms of white supremacy. Although this was important, it did not end all forms of racial discrimination, many of which were, and are, deeply embedded in the structures of the American society.
Let’s look back at the history of blacks and voting rights. Following the Civil War, black people used the Reconstruction Amendments to democratize the South. To be clear, only men were allowed to vote in formal elections and often had to bring weapons for their protection. Whites established oppressive Jim Crow laws that remained in place until the modern Civil Rights Movement. They used, effectively, murder and the destruction of black newspapers to help accomplish this goal.
Whites and their textbooks generally do not list the Jim Crow practices or the grandfather clauses, literacy tests, or the poll tax, but less well known are the economic terrorism and violence that backed up these strategies they used to Black voting. For example, a Mississippi sharecropper Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer describes what happened when she took the registration test in 1962: she was viciously beaten in jail, and in 1964 denied the right to vote.
Another example was in 1944, the NAACP won a landmark case, Smith v. Allwright, ruling that white primary where only white voters could participate in political primaries, later ruled unconstitutional. This victory inspired an upsurge in Black voter registration that was reinforced by Black veterans returning home from overseas. One of these veterans was Medgar Evers, who became Mississippi’s first NAACP field secretary and was assassinated in June 1963 for his civil rights work. The Supreme Court gradually outlawed discriminatory practices, like the grandfather clause, the white primary, and the poll tax, but the federal government played a passive role.
Some white supremacist judges blocked the department’s work at every turn and the FBI only reluctantly carried out the necessary investigations. And after initially promising to protect anyone working on voter registration, the Kennedy administration backtracked, and the FBI refused to protect civil rights workers, even when they were attacked on federal property in front of agents.
White supremacists responded to the voting rights campaign by manipulating the registration process, firing and evicting people, burning and bombing homes and churches, beating and even murdering people. White officials then used the low numbers of African Americans registered to vote to insist that Blacks had no interest in politics. In response, SNCC organized Freedom Days, first in Selma, Alabama, in 1963and in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, in 1964.
Whether in the punishing sun or pouring rain, people lined up to demonstrate their desire to vote. With little chance of actually registering, much less voting, they stayed in line and refused to be intimidated by white threats and harassment. Then in 1963, SNCC and other began to challenge the whole idea of requiring literacy to vote. They had encountered many people who had been denied education but still had more than enough wisdom to vote on their representatives.
For example, in Lowndes County, Alabama, with an approximately 80 percent African American population, but no Black registered voters. So their efforts equip the people with the information and skills essential to running the county themselves not just as new voters but also as political leaders. The SNCC “developed a unique political education program that used workshops, mass meetings, and primers to increase general knowledge of local government and democratize political behavior.”
SNCC’s work followed Ella Baker’s belief that “In order for us as poor and oppressed people to become part of a society that is meaningful, the system under which we now exist has to be radically changed. . . It means facing a system that does not lend itself to your needs and devising means by which you change that system.”
Moving forward to today, in July 2013, a deeply divided U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder. Arguing in part that it is arbitrary and no longer necessary to focus exclusively on the former Confederacy, the Court’s majority eliminated the pre-clearance requirement for nine Southern states. This means that the Justice Department can no longer check for racial bias in new laws in these states.
This along with other forms of voter suppression enacted throughout the state in this country; it is clear that we still need robust, proactive tools to protect voting rights for all citizens, but particularly African Americans, students, immigrants, and other marginalized groups.
Rather than being curtailed, the Voting Rights Act should be extended. No doubt future historians will look back at today’s voter ID laws, ex-felon disenfranchisement, and other forms of voter suppression (including Jim Crow voting booths) as a 21st-century version of the literacy tests, poll tax, and grandfather clause of the last century.
Ella Baker’s words still echo today. In 1964 she said, “Until the killing of Black men, Black mothers sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother’s son, we who believe in freedom cannot rest.” I agree! And that’s my thought provoking perspective…