This article was written by Brandie Davis for Ethnucation.com.
To understand voting rights in America, one must first understand America’s relationship with Slavery. In 1619, 20-30 slaves arrived in the British Colonies at Point Comfort, Virginia. It was at that moment that America’s relationship with Slavery was born. As slaves, Black people in America were not seen as human, but property. This idea was reinforced by the Supreme Court decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford. The court ruled that slaves whose ancestors were brought to America as slaves could not be considered American citizens and furthermore, they were not human and merely property. Property cannot petition the court and it was improper for them to rule as they did not have the jurisdiction. The court also found that because he was seen as property, they could not deny his owner his 5th Amendment right to have his property returned to him regardless of him being in a free state. This precedence further enforced the idea that Black people were inferior to White people and reinforced the white supremacy that was rampant throughout America. As a result of this thinking, while Black Americans (men) were technically given the right to vote via the 14th Amendment on July 9, 1868, 5 years after the emancipation proclamation was signed, Black Americans were not “free” to vote until August 6, 1965 when the Voting Rights Act was signed. Between 1868 and 1965, Black Americans were subjected to dehumanizing behavior and murder for attempting to exercise their rights. The journey from Reconstruction through Jim Crow to the Civil Rights movement shaped what Black Americans know today in regards to voting rights; however, those rights are still being violated through modern day disenfranchisement that must be addressed before American can really call itself the “land of the free.”
During Reconstruction, the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments were passed in an attempt to give former slaves rights as American citizens. As the Dred Scott case pointed out, property cannot be a citizen of a country. The 14th Amendment gives every person born or naturalized in America citizenship and equal protection under the law. It was created to give former slaves citizenship and the protections B. Davis that come with being a citizen. Shortly after the passage of the 14th Amendment, Southern states began creating Black Codes as a way to limit the freedom of Black Americans. The intent was to ensure they were still reliant on them and would continue to work for them as sharecroppers. While Southerners in confederate states were attempting to stifle the rights of Black Americans, Frederick Douglass continued to push for more rights for Black Americans. Once the 14th Amendment was ratified, he began pushing for voting rights for Black Americans. During the debate about the 14th and 15th Amendment the discussion of Women’s suffrage came up. The question then became, who should get the right to vote first, Black men or White women. Douglass was a champion for women’s suffrage and believed that women did in fact deserve the right to vote, however, it was imperative that Black men receive the right to vote first because if Black men could vote, Black women would be able to as well once women were granted the right to vote. When he received push back regarding the treatment on women, he responded,
"On putting a priority, after the Civil War, on votes for African Americans males before women in general] When women, because they are women, are dragged from their homes and hung upon lampposts; when their children are torn from their arms and their brains dashed upon the pavement;... then they will have the urgency to obtain the ballot."
Often in the women’s suffrage movement, Black women were overlooked and not taken into consideration. This was the crux of Sojourner Truth’s speech “Ain’t I a Woman?”
While Douglass remained a champion for women’s suffrage after the fracture between he, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony at the AERA in May of 1869 over the lack of women not being represented in the 15th Amendment, the same cannot be said for Stanton and Anthony. The 15th Amendment was written to go a step further than the 14th Amendment and explicitly give Black men the right to vote. Once Stanton and Anthony realized that Douglass believed in the rights of Black people more than just the rights of women, they began to appeal to the Southern Democrats ideology that Black people were inferior in hopes that they would vote against ratifying the 15th Amendment. B. Davis Like Douglass, Black women questioned the motivation of Stanton and Anthony and the Women’s Suffrage movement. They did not see their place in the movement if Black people did not have the right to vote first. This was further highlighted in a speech given by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper in 1866 at the National Women’s Rights Convention in New York . In the end, Black men earned the right to vote before Women with the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1869, however, this did not mean that Black men would be able to vote freely.
While women earned the right to vote in 1920 with the creation of the 19th Amendment, Black men and women were still not free to vote. After the passage of the 15th Amendment and the end of Reconstruction, Southern Democratic states began to pass voter disenfranchisement laws in order to keep Black people from voting. Examples of this disenfranchisement showed up in the form of poll taxes, literacy tests, White-Only primaries and violence. These methods effectively kept Black men from voting in Southern states. For example, in Mississippi “fewer than 9,000 of the 147,000 voting-age African Americans were registered after 1890. In Louisiana, where more than 130,000 black voters had been registered in 1896, the number had plummeted to 1,342 by 1904.” Jim Crow ushered in an era of oppression for Black Americans through “Separate but Equal” laws that didn’t allow Black Americans equal protection under the law. It also ushered in a new era of violence against Black people for attempting to vote from the Ku Klux Klan. “When poll taxes, literacy tests, "grandfather clauses," and "white primaries" did not stop blacks from registering and voting, intimidation often did the job. An African American citizen attempting to exercise his right to vote would often be threatened with losing his job. Denial of credit, threats of eviction, and verbal abuse by white voting clerks also prevented black Southerners from voting. When all else failed, mob violence and even lynching kept black people away from the ballot box.”
After the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. set his sights on the passage of the Voting Rights of Black Americans. While he was met with opposition form President Johnson, he and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee began working on getting Black voters registered to Vote. In the summer of 1964, the SNCC created their Freedom Summer initiative in order to register Black voters in Mississippi. Shortly after the initiative began, 3 volunteers disappeared and were later found murdered. While violence from white supremacy groups was at an all time high, SNCC pressed forward and got as many Black voters registered as possible. “Although approximately 17,000 black residents of Mississippi attempted to register to vote in the summer of 1964, only 1,600 of the completed applications were accepted by local registrars. Highlighting the need for federal voting rights legislation, these efforts created political momentum for the Voting Rights Act of 1965” .
A pivotal moment in the push to have the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed was Selma. In March of 1965, Dr. King joined John Lewis and the members of SNCC to march from Selma to Montgomery. In three attempts to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Marchers were met with violence from Sherrif Jim Clark and his officers. They were met with fire hoses and billy clubs and were brutally beaten. After witnessing this on television on March 7, 1965, there was an outcry from people all over the nation for something to be done. After a failed second attempt, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and on the 3rd and final attempt Dr. King led marchers across the bridge successfully. After the passage of the Voting Rights Act, one would think that Black Americans would no longer have barriers to voting (the 24th amendment made poll taxes illegal in 1962) however this was not the case.
Modern day voter disenfranchisement takes many different forms. Some of those include Voter ID Laws, Voting Registration Restrictions, Voter Purges, Felony Disenfranchisement, and Gerrymandering. In 2013, the Supreme Court upended a key section of the Voting Rights Act in the Shelby v. Holder decision that effectively allowed counties with histories of voter disenfranchisement to change their laws without submitting the changes to the justice department. As a result of this decision, some counties have created voter ID laws that disproportionately affect Black Americans. In Florida, felons who have served their time in prison, cannot vote until they have paid any fees associated with their sentence.
While America has come a long way in attempting to restore the rights of Black Americans who were brought to the country as slaves, it still has a long way to go to ensure that all of its citizens are treated equitably and have the ability to vote for representatives who have their best interest at heart. Many believe that their vote doesn’t matter, however, if it didn’t matter why would others work so hard to ensure that one cannot vote?
Why was/is the right to vote important to women and communities of color?
DID YOU KNOW...
Common voter suppression tactics include:
Stricter voter photo ID laws
No early voting
Ex- felon disenfranchisement laws
What tactics were used to suppress votes?
What are current forms of voter suppression?