In 1972 John Lewis co-authored a Notre Dame Law Review article documenting how, “[t]he history of black political participation in the United States has been one of struggle – pitting blacks against those forces which would continue to enslave and exploit minority groups.” It told how in 1876 more than 700,000 Black citizens registered to vote, only to be disenfranchised by KKK violence, ballot box stuffing, and selective literacy tests. By 1904 poll taxes were instituted in every former confederate state which further restricted voting.
These techniques were devastatingly effective. In Louisiana, for example, between 1986 and 1904 voter repression decreased the number of black voters by 96%. In the 1930’s racists employed more subtle tactics, such as convoluted party rules which barred Black citizens from the Democratic party nominating processes in 11 Southern States.
More roadblocks appeared at registrars’ offices where Black citizens faced hostility, irregular hours, and demands for documentation which many did not have. If they managed to register and get to the polls, they faced long lines, were told that their names were not on voting lists, and were given erroneous instructions that led to invalidation of their ballots
As the civil rights movement heated up, southern resistance increased. So-called “troublemakers” who tried to register had their names published in local newspapers and were targeted. Economic reprisals were easily implemented, since white people controlled employment, mortgages and farm loans, as well as distribution of benefits involving welfare, Social Security, and food stamps.
Racists also commited acts of terrorism: burning crosses, church bombings, murder. In 1954, Rev. George Washington Lee, a local Mississippi NAACP president, was shot on the day he allegedly refused a request to withdraw his voting registration application. In 1961 voting registration activist Bob Moses was beaten and arrested. Only after the murders of James Chaney, Michael Goodman, and Andrew Schwerner during Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964 did the public demand passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
But in 2013, the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in Shelby v. Holder. Section 5, which required states with a history of racial discrimination to get “pre-clearance” for any proposed changes in their electoral system, was ruled unconstitutional. Within 24 hours of the Shelby ruling, Texas announced strict photo-ID laws. Many states soon purged voting rolls disproportionally disenfranchising Black voters. Given all the blood shed to secure the vote, how will we now respond?
Consider these actions. Do they seem reasonable and/or effective examples of anti-racism activism?
Action #1 – Support organizations focusing on voting rights for Black voters such as the NAACP and the Movement Voter Project and demand that election officials count every vote cast in the 2020 elections through groups across the country preparing for post-election peaceful action such as Choose Democracy, Hold the Line, and Protect the Results.
Action #2 – Demand that the Senate pass the JOHN R. LEWIS VOTING RIGHTS ACT OF 2020 which would restore, repair, and strengthen the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Action #3 – Share information about systemic disenfranchisement of people of color and support educational and advocacy organizations such as the Brennan Center for Justice.