Generational subjugation… Denial of rights… Legalized oppression… These are all struggles that blacks in America have faced from as far back as the 17th century, beginning with the Jamestown Africans who were brought to America in 1619 as chattel slaves. The white majority who regarded themselves as superior have constantly been fixated on retaining power solely unto themselves, and consequently made it their mission to permanently assert their dominance over the black race, with efforts that were oftentimes met with vigorous opposition. Years later, even subsequent to the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 which granted citizenship to Black Americans and consequently their ability to vote, white lawmakers persisted in the degradation of the Black community in order to curb a potential shift of power, by engaging in Voter Suppression among other forms of oppression. This is still very much prevalent today in spite of the United States proudly touting itself as being a democracy. . Throughout history, we have seen the emergence of numerous Black social movements with the primary objective of opposing the unjustifiable degradation of the black race including the unjust effects of voter suppression. These social movements have fought for equal voting rights,justice and the overall advancement of the African American community through staging uprisings and protests, bringing cases before the Supreme Court and pioneering one of the most effective social movements in this country’s history. Despite constant oppression by the white majority, Black Americans have remained steadfast in their fight for equal rights, especially with regards to voting using the aforementioned methods. Though they somewhat differ from each other, they are similar in attaining the goals they set out to achieve.
Before attaining the right to vote, African Americans had to fight for the total abolition of slavery, and this resulted in the Civil War of 1861. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln in his Emancipation Proclamation stated inter alia that “all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free” (Lincoln, Emancipation Proclamation 1863). In spite of this however, the emancipation of all enslaved people did not materialize, as slavery continued in the southern states. After almost four years of civil war, Congress eventually passed the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, which did legally abolish slavery in all of the states. Following this, blacks who still faced oppression continued to fight for their rights, resulting in the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment which stated that “all persons born or naturalized in the United States… are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside,” (Fourteenth Amendment 1868). Becoming citizens of the United States meant that they were now able to participate in the liberties previously reserved solely to whites, including voting rights, however this ‘privilege’ was only extended to black males initially, as Black women were still excluded from partaking in the democratic process.
In an attempt to assert dominance, whites, particularly in southern states, completely denied black men who came to the polls of their rights as citizens. African Americans, especially formerly enslaved Black men, took to the streets and demanded that they be given their rights with no obstructions. In response to their protests, the Fifteenth amendment was passed to stop this intentional denial of voting rights. It stated in part that: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude” (Fifteenth Amendment 1870). Therefore, due to the collective effort of black men to secure their voting rights, along with the support of blacks who were never enslaved and some black women, changes were implemented as their protests resulted in the statutory protection from explicit racial discrimination at the polls. Their demands were heard, and great progress was made. This victory was a testament to the power of social movements, and served as a promising step towards unabridged voting rights.
Once the white majority recognized that blacks were making progress through protests, they quickly moved into action to suppress the extent to which blacks could exercise their newly conferred rights. They could not fathom the idea of blacks taking part in their coveted democratic process and consequently implemented a multitude of ways to lessen the black vote without overtly discriminating against them. As a result, conservative Democrats (also known as Dixiecrats) in the South created Jim Crow laws in 1877, during the Reconstruction era which would result in the suppression of votes. One Jim Crow voting law required voters to “pass literacy tests, [which was] nearly impossible for uneducated former slaves” (Roos, “How Voter Suppression Works”). Those who created the literacy tests were fully aware that many of the “lower class” black people who were previously enslaved were unable to read or write, and were therefore unable to complete them successfully and hence were ultimately barred from voting. Uneducated, poor whites were also affected by this law. Poll taxes were also implemented, which posed a “financial burden that many poor African-American[s] (and whites) were either unable or unwilling to pay” (Roos, “How Voter Suppression Works”). Blacks struggled financially as a result of the creation of Black Codes, another subset of Jim Crow Laws. These Codes specifically dictated where, when, and how African Americans worked, as well as their salaries. Despite being forced to work long hours at strenuous jobs, blacks were heavily undercompensated, and this became known as Wage Slavery. This affected the ability of blacks to pay for poll taxes, and consequently, many African Americans, as well as impoverished whites, were disenfranchised.
In response to this blatant denial of rights, male and female African Americans in the south, as well as less fortunate whites who were affected by these laws, protested fervently and risked their lives in the process. The amount of violence and lynchings meted out by whites against black protestors grew exponentially, but this did not deter African Americans from fighting for equality. Despite this however, whites retained the view that violence still seemed to be the most effective way of delaying African American progress, as evidenced in this quote by the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, Bryan Stevenson: “You could not keep African Americans in this country in a subordinate status without the threat of violence” (Stevenson, “The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow”).
The Reconstruction Era which spanned from 1863 to 1877 was followed by the Progressive Era (1897 – 1920). This new era brought with it equally new ways to deny voting rights to African Americans. Many whites, especially those who were less fortunate, were also affected by the aforementioned poll taxes and literacy tests. In order to garner additional white support for these voting laws, and to make disenfranchised poor whites happy and prevent them from joining forces with African Americans, lawmakers had to come up with ways to allow poorer, uneducated whites to vote while still excluding blacks. Consequently, southern states enacted the Grandfather Clause in 1895. According to The Racial History Of The ‘Grandfather Clause’ by Alan Greenblatt, “A half-dozen states passed laws that made men eligible to vote if they had been able to vote before African-Americans were given the franchise (generally, 1867), or if they were the lineal descendants of voters back then” (Greenblatt, “The Racial History Of The ‘Grandfather Clause’”). Clearly, the Grandfather Clause excluded all Blacks, since only those whose grandparents were able to vote and/or those who voted before the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment were now eligible to cast their ballots. Therefore, impoverished whites who used to be able to vote before voter suppression tactics were implemented were once again eligible, and this ensured the continued white support since portions of the race were no longer excluded. In response to the Grandfather Clause, male and female African Americans in Oklahoma took legal action against two election officials, Frank Guinn and J.J. Beal, in order to regain their rights that were taken from them by the Clause. In the Supreme Court case of Guinn & Beal v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court held that Grandfather Clauses and literacy tests were unconstitutional and violated the Fifteenth Amendment rights of Black Americans. The opinion of the Court, delivered by Chief Justice Edward White, stated inter alia that the elected officials “conspired unlawfully, willfully and fraudulently to deprive certain negro citizens, on account of their race and color, of a right to vote at a general election held in that State in 1910, they being entitled to vote under the state law and which right was secured to them by the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States” (Chief Justice White, Court Opinion of Guinn & Beal v. United States). This ruling was a huge victory for African Americans in Oklahoma in the fight against voter suppression. Outlawing the Grandfather Clause had a massive impact on the fight for voting rights for all Blacks, as it showed once again that collective action amongst people with similar goals can bring forth positive change, regardless of the method pursued. While the movement initially took action against the 15th Amendment through the form of physical protests (such as marches) through grassroots action, this was done by taking legal action in the courts to fight discrimination. This was a huge progressive step for the Black community, but the fight for voting rights continued far beyond the decision of this case.
A few years after the decision in Guinn & Beal v. United States was handed down, another monumental amendment was added to the United States Constitution. Pursuant to countless protests, demonstrations, and speeches, women were granted the right to vote by the Nineteenth Amendment which was ratified in 1920. The Amendment mandated that “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex” (Nineteenth Amendment 1919). Despite this amendment granting women suffrage however, black women were still excluded from the voting process based on race. State officials realized that black women were making an effort to register and partake in voting, and therefore created new laws to stop them from doing so, a move which resulted in bolstering the level of female African American participation in the fight for equal voting rights.
Due to the continuous mistreatment of African Americans in this country regardless of the progress made by protests, the Black community formed one of the most effective uprisings in U.S. History: the Civil Rights Movement of 1954. Men, women, boys and girls of various socioeconomic backgrounds participated in this movement which originated in Alabama. During the Civil Rights movement, the main demand of blacks was for equality in the rights that were bestowed upon them by the U.S. Constitution, and the ability to exercise these rights freely without discrimination. They staged protests, boycotts, and proceeded to make their voices heard in the least violent way possible. The Civil Rights Movement led to the passage of several Acts geared towards the advancement of African Americans, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was created “To enforce the constitutional right to vote… [and] to authorize the Attorney General to institute suits to protect constitutional rights in public facilities and public education…” (Civil Rights Act of 1964). Title I of the Act was dedicated to Voting Rights, with one section which reads in part: “No person acting under color of law shall– (B) deny the right of any individual to vote in any Federal election because of an error or omission on any record or paper…; or (C) employ any literacy test as a qualification for voting in any Federal election unless (i) such test is administered to each individual and is conducted wholly in writing, and (ii) a certified copy of the test and of the answers given by the individual is furnished to him within twenty-five days of the submission of his request made within the period of time during which records and papers are required to be retained and preserved pursuant to title III of the Civil Rights Act of 1960” (Title I– Voting Rights, Civil Rights Act of 1964). Black people were able to instigate such a major change yet again by starting a social movement which primarily consisted of nonviolent protests. Finally, it seemed as though there would be a nationwide end to legalized voter suppression tactics. Now that literacy tests, poll taxes and other methods implemented to suppress the black vote were fully outlawed, the road to equality seemed easier to traverse. The Black community has made colossal progress in ridding laws of provisions which served only to disenfranchise them through protesting, taking legal action, and staging boycotts and marches, proving that although these methods varied in execution, they all contributed to effectively fighting voter suppression. The issue of voter suppression still persists today, however.
In recent times, during the 2020 election year, voter suppression has gained more attention than in the last 50 years as the incumbent president of the United States promulgated the theory that mail-in ballots were potentially fraudulent, and touted in-person voting as the better alternative in spite of the coronavirus pandemic that disproportionately kills black people. It is a popular view that the motivation behind such a declaration is that Black Americans (who predominantly vote for democratic candidates) would be dissuaded from using mail-in ballots and would avoid in person voting in order to protect their health, and this would consequently pave the way for a Republican victory. Regardless of this attempt to disenfranchise them however, they resorted to early voting via absentee or mail-in ballots in record numbers. Republicans in this year’s election implemented various tactics to suppress votes of particularly blacks/democrats who would fear in person voting. In Texas, for example, the governor “ordered counties to close extra drop-off sites for absentee votes until they have only one each. The move means that the 4.7m residents of Harris County, which surrounds Houston, will all have to converge on the same drop-box if they wish to cast an absentee vote in person. Such restrictions might make sense for Loving County (population 169), but the decision could deter many of Harris’s majority non-white and urban folk from voting. The story is similar in the state’s other cities (“At Risk of Losing Texas, Republicans Scheme to Limit Democratic Votes,” The Economist). Harris County in Texas has a high African American population of approximately 901,998. By limiting the number of accessible ballot drop-boxes to one for the entire county, many persons were unable to travel to and use the drop-box due to proximity inconvenience. The ban was terminated by the Texas Third Court of Appeals, but was reinstated by the Texas Supreme Court as of Saturday, October 24. Ballot drop-boxes in both Boston and California have been set on fire and unofficial drop-boxes were placed by the California Republican Party around the state in a possible effort to steal votes. Other instances of modern-day voter suppression was seen in the proposal of the president to defund the postal service so that it would have difficulties to process the high volume of expected mail-in ballots, and there was the removal of mail boxes to reduce the ease of access to mailing. Additionally, several states still maintain disenfranchisement laws which prevent persons with felonious convictions (predominantly blacks) from voting. All of these examples show that even in 2020 attempts at voter suppression still exist and consequently, multiple groups continue to be vigilant to ensure that the Black community not only casts their ballots, but also to ensure that their ballots are in fact counted. Organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, Movement Voter Project and Black Voters Matter Fund all fight against voter suppression and for the amplification of the voices of African Americans.
In conclusion, African Americans have borne the brunt of voter suppression in the United States and fought for their rights, which has yielded great success, but there has always been a loophole for the white majority to push back on the gains. In the past, blacks have utilized protests and legal actions to make their voices heard, and these were very effective mechanisms which, even though differing in nature, resulted in significant progress against voter suppression. The fight will undoubtedly continue, as blacks remain relentless in their pursuit of equal treatment. Voter Suppression has been an obstacle in the path of African American advancement, but if history has taught us anything, it is that black Americans, instead of faltering in the face of adversity, are usually more motivated to overcome it.
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