Racism has affected the battle for the ballot in the United States ever since 1870 when the 15th Amendment supposedly guaranteed the right to vote, regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Almost immediately white supremacists severely restricted that right through legal impediments, police repression, and KKK terrorism.
It took enduring the hostility of Selma Sheriff Jim Clark for Black citizens to regain their voting rights. It took the death of military veteran and church deacon Jimmie Lee Jackson, beaten and shot by troopers while engaged in a peaceful voting rights march. It took the deaths of activists Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney. It took Bloody Sunday and John Lewis’s fractured skull and much more to get the Voting Rights Act passed on this day, August 6, in 1965.
President Johnson implored Congress to pass this bill: “Should we defeat every enemy, should we double our wealth and conquer the stars, and still be unequal to this issue, then we will have failed as a people and as a nation.” Given growing voter repression disproportionately affecting people of color today, are we failing as a nation?
Sometimes it feels that way, as Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matters, explained: “Presidential elections and the voter experience have long been fraught for black people. From racist poll taxes to made-up literacy tests to the egregious rollback of voting rights over the past 50 years, American democracy has, at times, felt like a weird and failed social experiment.”
Did the Supreme Court fail when weakening the Voting Rights Act in Shelby v. Holder (2013)? Are we failing by allowing others to purge voting rolls, gerrymander districts based on race, pass voter ID laws, and limit the time and places to vote – all of which severely disenfranchise people of color? Are we moving farther away from the ideal of democracy?
The 1965 Voting Rights Act was the most effective civil rights legislation ever. By 1967 the percentage of Blacks registered to vote rose from less than one-third to over half. Congressman John Lewis knows the fight goes on: “The right to vote is precious and almost sacred, and one of the most important blessings of our democracy. We must not allow the power of the vote to be neutralized.” The time is NOW to end racist manipulation of our elections.
Lesson #152: Backlash against the three reconstruction constitutional amendments (#13, #14, #15) was almost immediate as white supremacists threatened to kill those Black citizens, and their families, who dared to vote.
Lesson #153: Soon after the end of the Civil War, laws establishing requirements, tests, and fees in order to vote were selectively used to repress the vote of Black citizens and whites advocating for the rights of the previously enslaved.
Lesson #154: When the modern civil rights movement began advocating for equal access to the ballot for all Americans, white elected officials and law enforcement authorities made registering to vote as difficult as possible for African Americans and were complicit in the murder of voting rights activists.
Lesson #155: While President Lyndon Johnson may not have moved as swiftly to demand that Black citizens get to vote had it not been for the public outrage over the beating of Selma marchers, his speech to Congress supporting the Voting Rights act was eloquent, inspirational, and effective.
Lesson #156: Those today who want to suppress the Black vote have developed a wide array of tools that include poor organization and confusing procedural issues.
Lesson #157: Despite growing skepticism as to the fairness of the voting process, it still remains a potentially powerful tools to promote racial justice.