A History of Voting Rights and Why the Voting Rights Act is in More Danger Now Than Ever Before

In my previous blog entry '2016 - The Most Important Political Year for African-Americans' I wrote briefly about the importance of African-American participation in the political process in this election cycle and going forward. That entry wasn't written to make one believe they have more power than they do or that voting doesn't matter. Quite the opposite rather, it has more power now than it ever has and if Blacks in America are to progress politically, we have to begin to use this power wisely and to our advantage. However to fully understand this, one has to take a trip down the cultural memory lane of America. Understand what others have done and gone through to put people of color in the position they are in now. It's an ugly story of betrayal, treachery and resilience and due to the whitewashing of history, very few fully understand it.

It began with the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 which was enacted by Congress in the final year of the Civil War in 1865. Seen by many as the legislative backing behind the promise of the Emancipation Proclamation, it brought an official end to the old system of chattel slavery. Even though it was vetoed by Abraham Lincoln's former Vice President Andrew Johnson (now President post-Lincoln's assassination), it received two-thirds Congressional support thereby overcoming the President's veto. The law was the first Federal law in U.S. history to grant citizen rights to all native born Americans regardless of race and said specifically that Blacks would have the same rights as Whites. The first section of the Act itself clearly states this...

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That all persons born in the United States and not subject to any foreign power, excluding Indians not taxed, are hereby declared to be citizens of the United States; and such citizens, of every race and color, without regard to any previous condition of slavery or involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall have the same right, in every State and Territory in the United States, to make and enforce contracts, to sue, be parties, and give evidence, to inherit, purchase, lease, sell, hold, and convey real and personal property, and to full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of person and property, as is enjoyed by white citizens, and shall be subject to like punishment, pains, and penalties, and to none other, any law, statute, ordinance, regulation, or custom, to the contrary notwithstanding.

The astute reader would have also seen that exceptions are made with regards to those who are 'duly convicted' for committing a crime and therefor going to jail. More on that loophole later. As stated above, President Johnson attempted and failed to block the passage of this legislation believing that it granted protections to "the colored race" that weren't given to the White race and that the bill itself was a threat to White people and their control over the country by upsetting the established social hierarchy in America (a.k.a. caste system). 

 President Andrew Johnson 1865-1869
President Andrew Johnson 1865-1869

I do not propose to consider the policy of this bill. To me the details of the bill are fraught with evil. The white race and black race of the South have hitherto lived together under the relation of master and slave—capital owning labor...They establish for the security of the colored race safeguards which go indefinitely beyond any that the General Government has ever provided for the white race. In fact, the distinction of race and color is by the bill made to operate in favor of the colored against the white race.

— Andrew Johnson on March 27, 1866

Fortunately for Blacks in America, Andrew Johnson's anti-Black views didn't win over the Senate and his belief that Blacks were essentially too stupid to understand freedom and citizenship because of years of slavery wasn't bought. However his views are not that far displaced from the views many would have a century later when people would argue against the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of the 1960's. That somehow correcting a wrong, correcting an injustice is somehow a danger or threat to White people. These are views that have adjusted with the times, but have not gone away completely and are still echoed in different ways to this day. Johnson was eventually impeached and Congress passed the 15th Amendment on February 3rd, 1870 that reaffirmed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 but also granted the right to vote.

(Anti-)Black Codes & Racial Terrorism

In the few years that Reconstruction was attempted African-Americans saw huge political gains where in some cases former slaves were now politicians. Blacks came to make up a large portion of Southern Republican voters and allied and formed coalitions with sympathetic Northern and Southern White Republicans who were derogatorily called "carpetbaggers" and "scalawags" respectively by racist Southern Whites. In the mere years after the Civil War, some 16 Blacks held positions in Congress, more than 600 were elected to state legislatures with hundreds more holding local offices all across the South.

The post-Civil War era wasn't all roses and race and class collided as what can only be called white supremacy rallied to maintain control over what they saw as a major threat. Immediately after the Civil War in 1865 and 1866, Southern states began passing what have been called Black Codes which were essentially meant to maintain White control by preventing Blacks from testifying against whites, serving on juries or in state militias, voting, or starting a job without the approval of the previous "employer." These codes were repealed in 1866, but would make a comeback after the Great Betrayal of 1877 (a.k.a. the Great Compromise of 1877) where the Republican Party basically compromised with the Democratic Party and agreed to stop using federal troops to protect Freedmen and Freedwoman in Southern states. The Black Codes are a clear exploitation of the loophole spoken about above that gives an opening for the continuance of slavery via the prison system and incarceration. The Codes were laws that intentionally targeted Blacks for minor infractions and violations that were trivial and gave them harsh and extremely long sentences of forced labor. There is an excellent book written on this called 'Slavery by Another Name: Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II.' Read that if you really want more details about what can only be called a system of institutionalized racism and apartheid.

The 1870's saw the rise of a radical and fundamentalist bloc of extremists who called themselves 'Redeemers.' It was basically a collection of white paramilitary groups that would begin to confront the progress of reconstruction state by state. In some ways reminiscent of a modern day fundamentalist insurgency, these Redeemers felt they had to "redeem" the South by using terrorism to stifle the Black vote. These attacks and murders came in the form of white supremacist organizations like the White League, Red Shirts and of course the Klu Klux Klan among others. By the Presidential election of 1876, all but three states - Louisiana, South Carolina and Florida - remained in the hands of radical Republicans and there "un-redeemed" by white Democrats. This is why the Great Betrayal of 1877 is such a big deal and there's a reason it is considered one of the most corrupt moments in U.S. history. The 1876 election itself should probably go down as one of the most fraudulent elections in American history. The election was ripe with voter fraud and radically changed the course of U.S. history.

The Presidential Election of 1876 - Most Corrupt in U.S. History

The most important aspect of the Presidential election of 1876 was that it effectively ended Reconstruction and began the century-long struggle of Blacks under the system of "Jim Crow" which can also be called apartheid because "Jim Crow" isn't the actual name of a system. Maybe I'll save that for another blog entry (remind me if I forget and haven't done it by the time you're reading this entry). Voting rights were also effectively lost during this election, despite the fact that on paper Blacks had the right to vote due to the 15th Amendment still being in place. In terms of U.S. history period it remains the ONLY Presidential election is history where the loser (in this case Tilden) actually won over 50% of the popular vote and still didn't get enough electoral votes from the Electoral College to be named President and one of only 4 elections in American history where the person who became President didn't have the support of the majority of the American people. In the other 3 elections though (1824, 1888, 2000), the losers didn't have over 50% of the popular vote though like in this election. Even in the Bush v. Gore election of 2000, Gore only got 48.4% of the popular vote not over 50%. However I digress on this issue.

 Rutherford B. Hayes (left), Samuel Tilden (right)
Rutherford B. Hayes (left), Samuel Tilden (right)

On the eve of November 7, 1876, four states were still in dispute. As mentioned above, those states were South Carolina, Florida, Louisiana and the other one was Oregon. In these states, as well as others, extremist white militias caused a tremendous amount of voter fraud due to their intimidation and threats of violence and death if Blacks voted. Another act of voter fraud occurred when southern Democrats put the face of Abraham Lincoln on Democratic voting tickets to trick illiterate Black voters into thinking they were voting for the Republican candidate (Hayes), but they were really voting for Tilden. In South Carolina there were several violent engagements between armed Whites AND armed Blacks. In one instance, white supremacist supporters of a former Confederate general running for Governor of S.C. violently attacked groups of African-American voters who actually represented the majority of voters in that state. In another instance a group of Black militia members and White militia members shot at each other leaving 5 dead. Truly, it got so bad that soon-to-be former President Ulysses S. Grant who was basically out the door quietly mustered troops in Washington because there were threats of another Civil War if Hayes became President. Although Tilden captured the popular vote, the Republican Party challenged the legitimacy of the votes in these states and forced a recount supervised by federal agents sent out to those states by Ulysses Grant himself and guarded by American soldiers during the recount process. Many of the votes for Tilden were disqualified due to irregularities like the ones listed above and others that were unspecified. The Democrats called foul and accused the Republicans of stuffing the voter boxes. Specifically in Louisiana the Republican-controlled election board offered the DNC a $1 million bribe to say that Tilden won that state ($20.5 million in today's dollars according to the GDP deflator indicator). The DNC declined.

1876 also represents one of the few elections where the Electoral College was the source of tremendous controversy (much like 2000, but worse). The electoral commission was called to decide the election due to two different sets of ballots generating from the 4 contested states (the original ballots showing Tilden as the winner and the recount ballots showing Hayes as the winner). The commission was made up of 5 Democrats, 5 Republicans and 1 Independent. The swing vote came down to Joseph Bradley of New Jersey who announced on the eve of the electoral college voting that his opinion was that Tilden, the Democrat, should receive Florida's 3 electoral votes. It is important to note that he made this opinion after speaking with representatives of the Democratic Party who lobbied him before hand. After that statement was given and after the Democrats left Bradley's home, a group of Republicans paid Bradley a visit to get him to change his mind. When the voting finally went down, Bradley had apparently changed his mind and the electoral college decided 185 to 184 in favor of Rutherford B. Hayes and the Republican Party.

Despite the decision of the Electoral Commission, the controversy doesn't end there by far. Crying fraud with some calling for a new Civil War, the Democrats threatened to filibuster the decision preventing the electoral process from finalizing and threatening a constitutional crisis due to the fact that the Constitution requires a new President to be inaugurated by March 4. If a filibuster went into effect, an interregnum would occur which would basically be a lawless period of political upheaval and chaos where America would have no formal leadership in the White House. This forced the Republicans to come to the negotiating table and would result in the aforementioned 'Great Betrayal' or Compromise of 1877 which saw the withdrawing of federal troops from the South with the agreement by the Democrats to drop the filibuster if they got one of their major campaign desires.

With the withdrawal of federal troops, the Republican Party not only left Black Republicans in the South high and dry, it essentially embraced a hands off policy with regards to Southern states and their treatment of African-Americans. This allowed for the passage of highly repressive and oppressive "Jim Crow" laws that have left a lasting impact on this country even to this day. America is still very much grappling with the effects of the horrendously anti-democratic decision made by a handful of wealthy men in 1877. Even though Blacks would still be elected to local offices through the 1880's, Reconstruction was over and so was America's attempt to correct the wrong of slavery. Ever since then, slavery has more and more been relegated to a historical problem. Not something that still effects the way people think today. Despite the fact that Jim Crow apartheid and the Black Codes were clear off-springs of the slave era mentality. There was a feeling of needing to maintain self-preservation among both Northern and Southern Whites and if that meant sacrificing Blacks, then so be it.

Grandfather Clauses, Literacy Tests, White Primaries & Poll Taxes (1877-1964)

According to Howard Zinn, author of 'A People's History of the United States,' there are documents of meetings, petitions and appeals from Blacks in the 1880's in Baltimore, Louisiana, the Carolinas, Texas and elsewhere in the midst of one of the most racially violent eras in American history when there were hundreds of lynchings per year. These documents show that Black people still met and continued to organize in self-defense. This didn't stop Louisiana from enacting the countries first Grandfather clause in America however. The purpose of this law was to give White voters a way to circumvent the literacy tests, poll taxes and other methods set up specifically to disenfranchise Blacks. The clause stated that anyone who was able to vote before 1867 or had a father who could vote before 1867 or a Grandfather who could vote before 1867...then you could vote and not have to deal with the poll taxes, literacy tests, etc. Registered Black voters dropped from 44.8% in 1896 to a mere 4% four years later in 1900. The Confederacy may have lost the war, but their believers and "redeemers" were able to maintain a system of racial domination and control for many years following the end of the Civil War. Destroying voting rights, despite supposed protections from the Constitution, was a MAJOR part of that agenda. It was one of the first things racists went after post-slavery.

A poll tax was a prerequisite for registering to vote in most Southerns states (and some Western states too) that had to be paid in order to register. This tax was too high a payment for most Blacks, but Native Americans and even some poor Whites were hurt by this as well. For decades the poll tax went unchallenged by the Federal government until the 1940's when the debate around poll taxes and other anti-democratic hurdles placed on voting rights would begin to be questioned federally (despite the fact that little would be done until the 1960's). 

Literacy tests were an even bigger hurdle for many than the poll tax. They were more like college exams meant to confuse and demoralize the taker of the test and there was no way to know what would and wouldn't be asked on many of them. Studies have shown that many people today of all races do poorly on old literacy tests from the 1960's and prior. It had little to do with testing one's literacy and had more to do with asking deliberating complicated questions that often had nothing at all to do with voting. One example is a question on a literacy test from Alabama in 1965. The test has 68 questions and one of them asks..."Congress is composed of_____________________." The answer given in the answer sheet is 'the Senate and House of Representatives.' However the question is intentionally vague and just about anything detailing with the makeup of Congress can be added in that blank space. One could say Congress is composed of 200 committees and subcommittees or Congress is composed of Democrats, Republicans and Independents. Both are true, but would one get the answer wrong due to a purposefully vague question? There are numerous questions like this on that test on top of other questions irrelevant to voting.

Whites-only primaries were yet another tactic put into place in the late 1800's to stifle the vote of non-Whites. These primaries were used all over the South and especially in Texas where they were open about denying Blacks and Mexicans the right to vote. It wouldn't be until the passing of the Voting Rghts Act of 1965 that all of the practices listed above would be destroyed.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 & 'Bloody Sunday'

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 can be regarded as one of the most landmark pieces of legislation in American history. The very brief summary given in this blog post shows why it is and the re-election of Barack Obama in 2012 is exactly why white supremacists fought against non-White inclusion in the voting process for over a century to begin with. Broken into 19 different sections, the act outlaws all forms of institutionalized racism with regards to voting and prohibits state and local governments from enacting laws that stifled the ability of people pf color to vote.

The struggle during the sixties for voting rights is a lengthy story and it's easy to get caught up in the details. In an effort to prevent this blog post from becoming too long, I'll simply focus on one event during the voting rights struggle from that era that sums up how hard many in America fought to maintain ethnic apartheid. This event was shown in the 2014 film 'Selma' which was about the 1965 voting rights marches from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, Alabama which directly led to the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

There is an unacknowledged and totally white-washed history of state terror and human rights violations that can be easily seen in the state reaction to the Selma to Montgomery marches (on top of many other examples). This event also shows the dark history between law enforcement and the Black community. Before the first march occurred, Dallas County Sheriff called for all White males over the age of 21 to come to the Courthouse to be deputized in preparation for the march. So the Selma march wasn't just used as a racist recruitment tool by police, but it was seen as a potential warlike moment for the racists involved whereas the Blacks were just trying to gain rights they supposedly already had in the 15th Amendment. The extent to which law enforcement has been used for purposes of population control against the Black community are well-documented and will be the subject of future blog entries. Just be aware that many have fought and died for voting rights in this country and historically there have been many forces that have felt threatened by Black voting power so therefore threatened by democracy. Which should force one to question how democratic a lot of people in America really are if historically so many have been willing to deny democracy to millions of their fellow Americans.

The Present Day Threat to Voting Rights

To finish off this blog entry, I will now leave the historical summary to history and discuss the current threats to voting rights. Since 1965, there have been many attempts to chip away at the Voting Rights Act. In 2013 however, the Supreme Court brought the realization to a lot of people that our voting rights are NOT guaranteed and there is more reason now than ever to kickstart a new movement in an effort to uphold democracy in America...or what's left of it.

Many articles have been written about the threat to voting rights since the Supreme Court's 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder that struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act that designated certain parts of the country had to get clearance from the federal government or a federal court before passing voting legislation. The impact was felt immediately as some states such as Texas and North Carolina immediately moved to push voter ID laws that hurt thousands of mostly young, Black and newly-registered voters. New restrictions will be in place in some 15 states during the 2016 General Election. According to the New York Times, between 1965 and 2013 the Justice Department blocked more than 3,000 attempts to implement discriminatory changes to voting laws in various states. Not 50, not 100, not even 500...but 3,000! In that 48 year time span, that means on average we're talking about at least 63 attempts per year, every year since the signing of that legislation. Now the flood gates have been opened up once again and these states no longer need federal approval to enact racist legislation with the intent to target Blacks. This is a major reason why I'm not in the 'Don't Vote' crowd. Not voting is essentially giving these people exactly what they want. However our voting does need to become smarter and less dependent on mainstream media narratives. It's no longer just about voting...we need to place more of an emphasis on who we're voting for instead of just running to the first Democrat we see.

Since the Reagan administration there has been an attempt to look at the Voting Rights Act with skepticism and Justice John Roberts has a history of advocating against it stating during the Reagan years that certain sections should only be enforced when racism is blatantly obvious...which is often impossible to prove. After Shelby, Alabama passed a voter ID law requiring voters have an ID before they can vote. The Governor then closed 31 DMV license offices and the state raised the cost of renewing licenses going forward.

American democracy is in danger of no longer existing. With the rise of Donald Trump and the extremist Right, democracy has never been in more danger than it is right now. That's on top of Citizen's United, the TPP, the Military Commissions Act of 2006 and other anti-democratic policies that have been enacted in this country post-Civil Rights and post-9/11. According to a fairly recent Princeton study from 2014, American has become an oligarchy. Not BECOMING, but has already become that. American democracy arguably only exists in name only at this point.

Links for Further Reading

  1. Threats to Voting Rights: Democracy Hangs in the Balance - The Root
  2. Think Your Voting Rights Are Guaranteed? Think Again - The Daily Beast
  3. Voting Rights Timeline - ACLU
  4. Princeton Study: U.S. No Longer an Actual Democracy - Talking Points Memo
  5. The Racial History of the Grandfather Clause - NPR
  6. Slavery By Another Name - The New York Times

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