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How Jim Crow-Era Laws Suppressed the African American Vote

How Jim Crow-Era Laws Suppressed the African American Vote

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Following the ratification in 1870 of the 15th Amendment, which barred states from depriving citizens the right to vote based on race, southern states began enacting measures such as poll taxes, literacy tests, all-white primaries, felony disenfranchisement laws, grandfather clauses, fraud and intimidation to keep African Americans from the polls.

Focused on retaining white supremacy in the electoral process, legislators used loopholes in the 15th Amendment to implement a range of measures to disenfranchise Black voters without explicitly characterizing them on the basis of race.

After more than a half million Black men joined the voting rolls during Reconstruction in the 1870s, helping to elect nearly 2,000 Black men to public office, Mississippi led the way in using measures to circumvent the 15th Amendment. Mississippi's Jim Crow-era laws then set a precedent for other southern states to use the same tactics to assault Black enfranchisement for nearly a century until the passage of the Voting Rights of 1965.

TIMELINE: Voting Rights in the United States

1890 Mississippi State Convention

At the 1890 Mississippi State Convention a new constitution was adopted that included a literacy test and poll tax for eligible voters. Under the new literacy requirement, a potential voter had to be able to read any section of the Mississippi Constitution or understand any section when read to him, or give a reasonable interpretation of any section.

“There is no use to equivocate or lie about the matter,” said James Vardaman in 1890. Vardaman served in the Mississippi Legislature at the time of convention and later became governor of the state. “In Mississippi we have in our constitution legislated against the racial peculiarities of the Negro. When that device fails, we will resort to something else.”

The impact of the legislation was swift. By 1910, registered voters among African Americans dropped to 15 percent in Virginia, and under 2 percent in both Alabama and Mississippi, according to historian, Donald G. Nieman, in his book Promises to Keep: African-Americans and The Constitutional Order, 1776 to the Present.

In the 1898 Williams V. Mississippi ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the state’s poll tax, disenfranchisement clauses, grandfather clause and literacy tests on the basis that the new constitution didn’t “discriminate between the races and it has been shown that their actual administration wasn’t evil: only that evil was possible under them.” The Williams ruling eased the implementation of voter-suppression statutes in many other southern states, including Louisiana, South Carolina, North Carolina, Alabama, Virginia and Georgia.

John B. Knox, an Alabama delegate to that state’s 1901 convention, revealed the mindset of white legislatures when he stated that, “The convention’s goal is to establish white supremacy in the State, within the limits imposed by the Federal Constitution.”

While many of the voting suppression measures could also impact poor white people, they disproportionately impacted African Americans.

1. Literacy Tests

Anti-literacy laws in many southern states made it illegal to teach enslaved people to read. In 1880, according to the U.S. Bureau of Census, 76 percent of southern African Americans were illiterate, a rate of 55 percent points greater than that for southern white people. In 1900, 50 percent of voting-age Black men could not read, compared to 12 percent of voting-aged white men. These disparities made literacy tests one of the most effective tools at suppressing the African American vote. The voting clerks, who were always white, could also pass or fail a person at their discretion based on race.

Illiterate white people were often excluded from these literacy tests through the use of grandfather clauses, which tied their voting rights to their grandfathers' before the Civil War. Former slaves, who had no voting rights until the 15th Amendment, could obviously not benefit from this provision. The grandfather clause also applied to poll taxes, which were another measure created by white-dominated southern legislatures to suppress the Black vote.

2. Poll Taxes

While southern legislatures claimed that poll taxes for voting were designed to raise state revenue, to many white political leaders, the main purpose was to suppress the African American vote. “This newspaper believes in white supremacy,” said a Tuscaloosa (Alabama) News editorial in 1939, “and it believes that the poll tax is one of the essentials for the preservation of white supremacy.”

Eleven states in the South had laws that required citizens to pay a poll tax before they could vote. The taxes, which were $1 to $2 per year, disproportionately impacted Black registered voters. In Georgia, which implemented a cumulative poll tax in 1877 that required all citizens to pay back taxes before being permitted to vote, Black voter turnout went down 50 percent, according to Morgan Kousser in The Shaping of Southern Politics: Suffrage Restriction and the Establishment of the One-Party South, 1880-1910.

3. All-White Primaries

When literacy tests, poll taxes, grandfather clauses and the many other ways to circumvent the 15th Amendment didn’t work to suppress Black voter turnout, white legislators in several southern states used all-white primaries to all but eliminate Black voters' presence in the electoral process.

In Texas, for example, the legislature gave the Democratic Party the authority to set its own rules. The party determined that it was for white voters only, excluding African Americans from its elections and effectively making local electoral politics dominated by one party that upheld Jim Crow laws.

After a white election official blocked a Black man, Lonnie E. Smith, the right to vote in the 1940 Texas Democratic primary, the NAACP's Thurgood Marshall and William H. Hastie challenged the case all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1944, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Smith V. Allwright that the Texas white primary system was unconstitutional.

“The right to vote in a primary for the nomination of candidates without discrimination by the State…is a right secured by the Constitution,” said the court in its 8-1 decision.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965

WATCH: Voting Rights Act of 1965

Signed into law 95 years after the 15th Amendment was ratified into the Constitution, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed most discriminatory voting practices in southern states such as literacy tests, poll taxes, and grandfather clauses that had been designed by southern legislatures to suppress the African American vote.

Almost as swift as the resistance to Black voter participation had been nearly a century earlier, so had the response to this landmark legislation. Within a year, only four of the 13 southern states had fewer than 50 percent of African American registered voters.

Shelby County v. Holder

In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court walked back part of the Voting Rights Act when it ruled in a 5-4 vote that constraints placed on certain states and federal review of states’ voting procedures were outdated. In the wake of the Shelby County v. Holder decision, several states have enacted laws limiting voter access, including ID requirements, limits on early voting, mail-in voting and more.

African American Freedom Movement During the Period of Jim Crow

Jim Crow in America refers to the period after the Reconstruction Period all the way to 1960s. Jim Crow era was characterized by what was referred to as the Black Codes. The codes were nothing but informal rules that were used by colonial masters to force Blacks to work in their plantations as slaves. Jim Crow period is one of the darkest periods in the history of African Americans. At this period, Blacks in America would be racially segregated and discriminated in all sectors be it in education, health, accommodation or in transport, they would also be attacked, beaten and even be lynched.

Lynching of blacks was said to be a means of social control but that was just an excuse to execute them in fact, lynching was a new form of entertainment where the whites would gather, mock, laugh and enjoy the lynched Blacks struggle to death. To change the politics of the day, the Black population had to do something and this was done by use of various methods and strategies under the leadership of the then enlightened Blacks.

The main focus of this paper will be to discuss in depth on these forms and strategies that African Americans used to challenge Jim Crow laws.

The paper starts with a brief introduction which is simply an account of the events that were going on during this era. The paper then proceeds to discuss about the strategies that Blacks employed to end white’s leadership. It also highlights about the prominent figures that led the Black population in this fight and ends with a conclusion which is a recap of the main points that have been discussed.

As mentioned here above, Jim Crow laws trace their roots to Black codes whose prime goal was to enforce slavery. The reason why the whites resorted to Black Codes was because they had almost been forgotten especially after the Blacks were given some civil rights during the Reconstruction Period. At this time the Blacks would be allowed to participate in political systems such as voting and would also own some pieces of land that formerly belonged to their masters. They were given these rights under the 13th, 14th and 15th Constitutional Amendments. These rights were also enforced by the 1866’s Civil Rights Act. The Southern whites were not amused by this and soon they ganged themselves up against the Blacks subjecting them one of the most trying moments in the history of Blacks.

According to Marx (1998), after the end of the Reconstruction Period in 1877, the southern whites under a political group of people known as Redeemers would use terrorist acts to win control of the Southern States from the Northern Republicans. Eventually, they were able to take control of these states and their legislature. Using these legislations, they were able to strip blacks of all the rights they had acquired during the Reconstruction period thereby marking the beginning of the Jim Crow era.

The Southern Democrats used their power to control African Americans by using a terrorist group known as Klu Klax Klan and apart from the Black codes, the whites introduced other new laws for example, one had to pass a certain literacy test to be allowed to vote thus many blacks being illiterate, they were denied an opportunity to vote. Another method that the whites used to subjugate the blacks was through the introduction of legally instituted poll tax to ensure that they would continue working in their farms so as to get money to pay their poll tax (Healey, J. F. 2006). By 1890s, the blacks were segregated almost in all sectors. Though they were heavily suppressed by the whites and their pleas fell on deaf ears, they tried to challenge this leadership by instituting legal actions against them on grounds that all forms of corruption were prohibited by the 14th Constitutional Amendment. Despite this provision, the Supreme Court dismissed their claims that though state segregation was not allowed, segregation in businesses and on individuals was not prohibited. Though the blacks were not favored by the Supreme Court’s ruling, they never lost hope in the fight against their civil rights abuse and for this reason they continued to fight for them up to the end. The truth of the matter was that Jim Crow laws were met with open defiance and resistance (Healey, J. F. 2006).

During Jim Crow era, interracial sex and marriages were not allowed and the whites propagated many beliefs with an aim of quashing any form of relationship that seemed to crop up. These laws ensured that all the Blacks remained at the bottom of the hierarchy and this was done through the use of violence and suppressive laws. Again these laws prohibited whites and blacks from shaking hands on pretext that Blacks would assume they were equal with the whites. Blacks were not to attend same schools, hospitals, use same means of transport and if this had to happen, then Blacks were supposed to give their seats to the whites and seat or stand at the back incase the bus was full. These transport laws were enforced by the Louisiana’s law, Separate Car Law of 1890s which adhered to the principle of ‘separate but equal.’ (Fredrickson, 1996).

In a bid to end segregation, African Americans led by their leaders used various methods and strategies for example, they would go to courts, hold protest marches like the famous march to Washington, hold sit-ins, they would also boycott public means of transport, would form various freedom movements such as the Civil Rights Movement, the NCAAP and UNIA and would choose not to obey the laws.

The suppressed Blacks would also challenge these Jim Crow laws in courts although many are the times they lost but despite this, they were still able to end some forms of racial segregation and discrimination. For example in 1915 in the case between Guinn Vs United States, segregation law that denied them a chance to vote was revoked on grounds that it was unconstitutional. Then in a court case Buchanan vs. Warley, all forms of residential segregation were outlawed. Under Louisiana, Kentucky law, African Americans were not allowed to live in the same neighborhood with the whites especially in areas where the whites were the majority. The Supreme Court of United States argued that though this segregation law seemed to be legitimate, it denied the very rights that the Blacks were guaranteed by the 14th amendment of the constitution. (Fredrickson, 1996)

Again in the case Sweat vs. Painter of 1914, the law that segregated the Blacks and denied them to enjoy equal opportunities with the Whites was deemed to be unconstitutional. In this case, Marion Sweat had been refused to be enrolled in Texas law school because of the color of the skin and instead was enrolled in another new law school that was meant for the Blacks. The Supreme Court outlawed this law citing the reason that the law schools that were meant for the Blacks did not meet the minimum law requirements. Still in another case, Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954, separate but equal doctrine that was applied in both elementary and high schools was challenged in court. In the nullification of this law, the Supreme Court of USA said that this segregation law made the blacks to look inferior to whites and that it impaired Black’s educational opportunities (Healey, 2006 226)

Another method that was used by the blacks to challenge Jim Crow laws was by organizing protest marches along the streets of the major towns. These marches were very common in the period between 1950s and 60s, the most famous of them being the march to Washington. Blacks also organized boycotts for example the one that resulted in 1st December after Rosa Parks refused to give her seat to a white person as it was required by the social etiquettes of the day. This led to her arrest something that provoked the conscience of the African Americans who responded by one of the most famous bus boycott, the Montgomery Bus Boycott which affected the country’s economy forcing the white powers to reconsider their decision and finally the revocation of this segregation law on public transport. (Healey, 2006)

Another method that the Blacks used to challenge these laws was by conducting sit-ins in public restaurants. According to Jim Crow laws, Blacks were not supposed to wine and dine with the whites in the same restaurant but the blacks would still go to these restaurants though would not be served. The major sit-in happened when four high school students went to a restaurant to eat lunch but were not served. Instead of leaving, they decided to stay there until evening. The next day they did the same but the funny thing was that the rest of the students had heard of the news and were doing the same elsewhere. “Student sit-in movement (was) launched by four young African Americans at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina in February 1960. Within weeks the movement had spread to other cities notably Nashville.” (Marqusee, 46)

The other strategy that was used was the formation of freedom movements that proved very good in bringing the black population together. An example of these freedom movements was the Civil Rights Movement which was led by Martin Luther King Jr. the movement was geared towards fighting for the civil rights for the Blacks. The most pressing issue that led to its formation was racial segregation and discrimination that was perpetrated by the Whites against the Black population (Marqusee, M., 2005). Civil Rights Movement was very vibrant in organizing boycotts, protest marches and what was generally referred to as civil disobedience. This movement gained momentum in the 1950s especially after the Montgomery bus boycott and remained vibrant all the way up to 1965 when the Civil Rights Act was finally enacted. This movement owes its credit to Martin Luther king Jr. whom without his courageous, outstanding leadership and his oratorical skills, no such progress would have been made. King is most remembered for organizing the protest march to Washington and giving the ‘I have a Dream Speech’.

Another leading figure whose role he played in ending Jim Crow laws cannot be overlooked is W.E.B Du Bois. This was an African American sociologist and Historian whose work laid the foundation on which the civil rights were grounded. Through his Niagara Movement, Du Bois advocated for direct confrontation on the issues that affected the Blacks unlike his companion Booker T. Washington who advocated for more accommodative approach to the white leadership. He asked the Blacks to humble themselves arguing that they would finally succeed in life and be free. (Davis, Ronald)

The other leading figure was Marcus Moziah Garvey, a black nationalist born in 1887 and died in 1940. He once organized the workers in a printing company to strike due to low wages they received. In 1912, he went to England to stretch his horizons a bit and then returned home to form a movement that was known as Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in 1914.

In short, African Americans in confronting racial segregation and discrimination, they employed various methods and strategies which in the end proved to be successful. For example they would march in the streets to express their dissatisfaction, show overt civil disobedience, organize protest marches and formed freedom movements. This was because during Jim Crow era, the blacks would be attacked, beaten and lynched under pretext that they were breaking the laws. Due to the way they were treated, the Blacks left with no other good option had to devise ways on how they would confront the Whites’ leadership but this was not without the much needed help that was offered courageous, intelligent, focused and reliable leaders to guide and show them the way forward.

Davis, Ronald L. F. The History of Jim Crow: From Terror to Triumph: Historical Overview. Available at

Healey, J. F. 2006. Race, Ethnicity, Gender, and Class: The Sociology of Group Conflict and Change. 4th Edition. Pine Forge Press

Fredrickson, G.M. 1996. Black Liberation: A Comparative History of Black Ideologies in the United States and South Africa. Oxford University Press US.

Marqusee, M., 2005. Wicked Messenger: Bob Dylan and the 1960s. Revised Edition.

Jim Crow Killed Voting Rights for Generations. Now the GOP Is Repeating History.

On September 3, 1868, Henry McNeal Turner rose to speak in the Georgia House of Representatives to fight for his political survival. He was one of 33 new Black state legislators elected that year in Georgia, a revolutionary change in the South after 250 years of slavery. Eight hundred thousand new Black voters had been registered across the region, and the share of Black male Southerners who were eligible to vote skyrocketed from 0.5 percent in 1866 to 80.5 percent two years later.

These Black legislators had helped to write a new state constitution guaranteeing voting rights for former slaves and leading Georgia back into the Union. Yet just two months after the 14th Amendment granted full citizenship rights to Black Americans, Georgia’s white-dominated legislature introduced a bill to expel the Black lawmakers, arguing that the state’s constitution protected their right to vote but not to hold office. “You bring both Congress and the Republican Party into odium in this state,” said Joseph E. Brown, who had served as governor during the Confederacy years, when “you confer upon the Negroes the right to hold office…in their present condition.”

Turner was shocked. Born free in South Carolina, he’d been appointed by Abraham Lincoln as the first Black chaplain in the Union Army. After the war, he settled in Macon, Georgia’s fifth-largest city, where he was elected to the legislature. As a gesture of goodwill, he’d pushed to restore voting rights to ex-Confederates. But now white members of the legislature—both Democrats and Republicans—were turning on their Black colleagues.

Turner’s passionate speech would become a rallying cry for the civil rights movement 100 years later. “Am I a man?” he asked. “If I am such, I claim the rights of a man. Am I not a man because I happen to be of a darker hue than honorable gentlemen around me?”

But his pleas went unheeded. The legislature voted to expel the Black lawmakers, who weren’t even allowed to participate in the vote. “The sacred rights of my race,” said Turner, were “destroyed at one blow.” Soon he was getting death threats from the Ku Klux Klan. “We should neither be seized with astonishment or regret” if he were to be lynched, editorialized the Weekly Sun of Columbus, Georgia. Two weeks later, one of the ousted Black legislators, Philip Joiner, led a march to the small town of Camilla in southwest Georgia, where white residents opened fire, killing a dozen or more of the mostly Black marchers.

And so Reconstruction all but ended in Georgia almost as soon as it began. Outraged Republicans in Washington attempted to reinstate it, putting the state back under military rule, purging ex-Confederates from the legislature, and giving Black members their seats back. But in the 1870 election, Georgia’s white majority united to reclaim the state and vote out the Black members, backed up by KKK violence that kept many Black people from the polls. “There is not language in the vocabulary of hell strong enough to portray the outrages that have been perpetrated,” Turner wrote to Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner. Five years after the war ended, ex-Confederates had retaken Georgia. “The Southern whites will never consent to the government of the Negro,” said Democratic US Sen. Benjamin Hill. “Never!” Georgia became a blueprint for how white supremacy would be restored throughout the South.

One hundred and fifty years later, another Georgia legislator representing Macon rose to defend the rights Turner had fought for. Like Turner, Democratic state Sen. David Lucas is an African Methodist Episcopal minister. In 1974, at just 24, he became the first Black member of the legislature to represent Macon since Reconstruction—a product of the second Reconstruction, of the 1960s, when the country passed civil rights laws, including the Voting Rights Act, to restore the squandered promise of the first. With his Super Fly suit and Honda 750 motorcycle, he stood out among the good ol’ boys in the state Capitol.

On February 23, 2021, Lucas, now 71, took to the Senate podium to oppose a new voter-ID requirement for mail-in ballots introduced by Georgia Republicans. In 2005, Republicans had specifically exempted mail-in ballots from the state’s voter-ID law, believing that more rural and elderly voters would be the ones casting them. But now they were changing the rules after the Black share of mail-in voters increased by 8 points in 2020 and the white share fell by 13 points. The measure was one of 50 anti-voting bills they’d introduced after the state went blue in November and Donald Trump tried to overturn the election results by falsely alleging a massive conspiracy to rig the vote.

Lucas, the in-house historian of Georgia’s Legislative Black Caucus, said the bill “reminds me of the election of 1876.” He told the story of the disputed presidential contest that put Rutherford B. Hayes in the White House on the condition that he would withdraw federal troops from the South, officially ending Reconstruction. “When they pulled out the federal troops,” said Lucas, “that’s when we had Jim Crow and folks got lynched.”

This history was personal for Lucas. When he was 13 and playing four square with friends, the police picked him up and falsely accused him of throwing a rock through a white driver’s windshield. They took him to a convenience store, where the driver got in the back of the police car, placed a gun to his head, “and told me he’d kill me,” Lucas said. Later, as a student at Tuskegee University, he worked on the campaigns of the first Black legislators elected in Alabama since Reconstruction, and worked with a Black professor of political science to register Black voters in the area. As he canvassed small-town dusty roads, white men in pickup trucks would drive by with shotguns and ask him, “Why are you registering folks to vote?”

After 45 years in office, he told his colleagues emotionally, he couldn’t believe he still had to defend his right to vote. What should have been the country’s most fundamental principle remained the most contested. “I will not go home and tell those folks who voted that I took away the right for you to vote,” Lucas vowed on the Senate floor.

A month later, Georgia Republicans passed a sweeping rewrite of the state’s election laws—rolling back access to mail-in ballots, limiting drop boxes, making it possible for right-wing groups to challenge voter eligibility, and boosting the heavily gerrymandered legislature’s power over election administration. Across the country, nearly 400 bills were introduced in the first five months of 2021 to limit voting access, the largest number of voting restrictions proposed at one time since the end of Reconstruction.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed the state’s voting bill alongside six white male Republicans, under a painting of a slave plantation. When Park Cannon, a young Black Democratic state representative from Atlanta, knocked on the governor’s door demanding to see the signing, Georgia state police arrested her and dragged her from the Capitol, charging her with two felonies (soon dropped)—a scene that harked back to the brutal crackdowns against 20th-century civil rights activists. “If you don’t like being called a racist or Jim Crow, then stop acting like one,” Democratic state Sen. Nikki Merritt told her white Republican colleagues following the arrest. Former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, founder of the voting rights group Fair Fair Action, called the law “Jim Crow in a suit and tie.”

During Reconstruction, racial equality was written into the US Constitution for the first time. It was nothing less than a “second founding,” Columbia University historian Eric Foner wrote in his 2019 book of the same name. Trailblazing Black lawmakers like Turner were elected, and the party that was aligned with Black voting rights made inroads in a region dominated for a century by the party of white supremacy. Multiracial government became a fact of life where white minority rule had been the norm.

The overthrow of Reconstruction was a stark reminder of the fragility of progress on voting rights. The second Reconstruction that began in the 1960s was marked by long, slow advancement that culminated in 2020, when Black voters turned out in record numbers to elect the state’s first Black and Jewish US senators. “After I finished crying, I was just so elated, that Georgia stands alone in the South,” said State Rep. Al Williams, who marched from Selma to Montgomery with John Lewis and was arrested 17 times during the civil rights movement. “A Jewish guy and a Black Baptist preacher—who would have ever thought it?”

But the vicious white backlash that has followed those victories—an attempt to overturn the election, an insurrection at the US Capitol, a record number of bills to restrict voting rights—has all the makings of a concerted attempt to end the second Reconstruction.

The means have changed and grown less violent, but the basic idea is the same: to couch voting restrictions in race-blind language to disenfranchise new voters and communities of color. Once again, the party of white grievance is rewriting the rules of American democracy to protect conservative white political power from the rising influence of new demographic groups. “Nobody’s putting in a literacy test, nobody’s putting in a poll tax,” says Yale historian David Blight. “But there are all kinds of ways for how to just restrict voting this time. Rather than utter disfranchisement, they are obviously going for: Knock off 5 percent of the Black vote, and you can once again win Georgia.”

In August 1890, ex-Confederate leaders in Mississippi convened to draft a new state constitution that would disenfranchise Black voters once and for all. “Let us tell the truth if it bursts the bottom of the Universe,” said Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Solomon S. Calhoon. “We came here to exclude the Negro. Nothing short of this will answer.”

Reconstruction had brought even bigger changes to Mississippi than to Georgia because Mississippi had a Black majority. More than 225 Black officeholders were elected, including two US senators, a congressman, speaker of the house, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, and superintendent of education. It was the very success of Reconstruction that made white Mississippians so determined to overthrow it.

In 1875, ex-Confederates had retaken the state following the Georgia model: White Democrats formed paramilitary groups and attacked Republican meetings, threatened economic reprisals against Black farmers, and stuffed ballot boxes.

“If a colored man said he was going to register, they advised him not to,” said Aurelius Parker, a member of the legislature. “If he was still determined in his statement that he was going to register, they would tell him that if he did register, he could not vote.” Those who ignored such threats were told, “You had better spend Monday digging a grave for yourself if you intend to vote, for you will not be allowed to live.”

White Democrats weren’t always proud of the methods they used to keep Black people from the polls. “It is no secret that there has not been a fair count in Mississippi since 1875, that we have been preserving the ascendancy of the white people by revolutionary methods,” Judge J.B. Chrisman said during an unusually candid speech at the state constitutional convention in 1890. “In other words, we have been stuffing ballot boxes, committing perjury, and here and there in the state carrying the elections by fraud and violence…No man can be in favor of perpetuating the election methods which have prevailed in Mississippi since 1875 who is not a moral idiot.”

They soon shifted tactics to achieve the same goal. The Reconstruction laws were technically still on the books, and if Republicans, who had taken unified control of the federal government in 1888 for the first time since the Grant administration, passed new legislation to enforce the 15th Amendment, which guaranteed men the right to vote regardless of race, Black people could regain their influence in the state. So Mississippi Democrats attempted something historic, drafting a new state constitution “to effect an electorate under which there could be white supremacy through honest elections,” wrote J.S. McNeily of the Vicksburg Herald.

The constitutional convention established a dizzying array of devices to eliminate Black suffrage, including a poll tax and the disqualification of prospective voters who committed minor crimes like “obtaining goods under false pretenses”—offenses for which Black people were disproportionately charged. The centerpiece of the plan was a requirement that any voter “be able to read any section of the Constitution of this State or he shall be able to understand the same when read to him, or give a reasonable interpretation thereof.” This “understanding clause” gave local white election officials tremendous discretion to turn away Black people, while permitting local whites who might fail such a test to vote regardless.

There are striking similarities between the Mississippi plan of 1890 and the Georgia plan of 2021. The same pattern that existed during Reconstruction—the enfranchisement of Black voters, followed by the manipulation of election laws to throw out Black votes, culminating in laws passed to legally disenfranchise Black voters—is repeating itself today.

Trump told Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find 11,780 votes” to nullify Joe Biden’s victory, and Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani asked the state legislature to appoint its own presidential electors to overturn the will of the voters. When these efforts failed, Georgia Republicans rushed to change their voting laws to make it much easier for Republican candidates to find those votes in future elections—replacing extralegal attempts to rig the election with ostensibly legal ones.

The proponents of these laws have defended them in eerily similar ways. White Mississippians of the 1890s claimed there was nothing racist about their new constitution because it was intended “to correct the evil, not of Negro suffrage per se, but of ignorant and debased suffrage,” said Mississippi Democratic Sen. James Z. George. The “understanding clause” was “an enlargement of the right to vote and not a restriction upon it,” George argued, since it did not disenfranchise voters if they could sufficiently interpret the Constitution—a loophole that, in practice, existed for white people, not Black people.

Similarly, in 2021, Kemp said “there is nothing Jim Crow” about the Georgia law and argued that it “expands access to the ballot box,” pointing to a provision that requires more days of weekend voting. That won’t affect large counties in the Atlanta area that already offered multiple days of weekend voting but will create more voting opportunities for rural counties that lean Republican. Nor did Kemp mention the 16 different provisions that make it harder to vote and that target metro Atlanta counties with large Black populations.

And both plans had built-in backstops in case they didn’t succeed in manipulating the electorate. In post-Reconstruction Mississippi, the lieutenant governor and secretary of state would appoint all the local election officials, who could ensure the results favored white Democrats. This consolidation of election authority was replicated by Democrats across the South. In Maryland, South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana, the governor appointed the county commissioners who selected the election judges. In Alabama and Arkansas, election officials were chosen by a state board led by the governor in Virginia and North Carolina, the legislature appointed them.

This year, after Raffensperger rebuffed Trump’s demand to overturn the election, the Georgia legislature stripped the secretary of state of his chairmanship and voting rights on the state election board and lawmakers instead gave the legislature the power to appoint a majority of board members. The board, in turn, has the authority to take over up to four county election boards it deems underperforming. And since November, at least nine GOP-controlled counties have dissolved their bipartisan election boards to create all-Republican panels. Combined with a provision allowing right-wing groups to mount an unlimited number of challenges to voter eligibility, these changes will make it easier for Republicans to contest close elections and possibly overturn the results.

Then, as now, Congress had the power to stop the disenfranchisement of Black voters.

One month before the Mississippi convention of 1890, the House of Representatives passed a bill sponsored by Massachusetts Rep. Henry Cabot Lodge empowering federal supervisors to oversee registration, voting, and ballot counting in the South, and giving federal judges the power to invalidate fraudulent election results. “The Government which made the Black man a citizen of the United States is bound to protect him in his rights as a citizen of the United States, and it is a cowardly Government if it does not do it!” Lodge said.

Senate Republicans also greeted the Mississippi convention with outrage, vowing to approve the Lodge bill when they returned to the chamber that fall. But Democrats staged a dramatic filibuster—the first of many Southern-led filibusters to kill civil rights legislation—giving exhaustive speeches and using a variety of endless procedural delays to derail the bill. Sen. George of Mississippi alone gave three marathon speeches in opposition. “It will never come to pass in Mississippi, in Florida, in South Carolina, or any other State in the South, in any State in the American Union, that the neck of the white race shall be under the foot of the Negro,” he vowed.

With the support of a group of Western Republicans from sparsely populated mining states who feared the expansion of suffrage to Chinese immigrants, Senate Democrats mounted a sneak attack on January 5, 1891. Democrats were quietly told to hastily assemble in the chamber. Democrat Isham G. Harris of Tennessee controlled the gavel while Vice President Levi Morton, a Republican who usually presided over the business of the Senate, was taking a leisurely lunch. As Republicans angrily protested, the assembled senators voted 34 to 29 to scrap the Lodge bill.

Today, the parties have flipped, but the situation is similar. Aided by national dark money groups like Heritage Action for America, Republican-controlled states are rushing to pass new voting restrictions while Democrats in Congress are pushing two sweeping bills to protect voting rights and stop many of these efforts. Once again, these bills are likely to be blocked by a Senate filibuster. Republicans have denounced one of the bills, HR 1, in the same apocalyptic terms that Democrats once used to criticize the Lodge bill. Ted Cruz of Texas called it “the single most dangerous piece of legislation before Congress.”

The failure of the Lodge bill is a stark reminder of the costs of inaction, both for democracy and for the party that supports Black voting rights. Following its defeat, Democrats suppressed the Black vote so efficiently that they gained unified control of the federal government in 1893 for the first time since before the Civil War. They promptly repealed the laws that had been used to enforce Reconstruction and protect Black suffrage.

“Let every trace of the reconstruction measures be wiped from the statute books let the States of this great Union understand that the elections are in their own hands,” House Democrats wrote in an 1893 report. “Responding to a universal sentiment throughout the country for greater purity in elections many of our States have enacted laws to protect the voter and to purify the ballot.” A similar phrase—“preserve the purity of the ballot box”—was inserted by Texas Republicans in a sweeping anti-voting bill this year and stricken only after Democrats pointed out that it dated back to Jim Crow. (The final version of the Texas bill, which would have curtailed voting methods disproportionately used by Black and Brown voters and made it easier to overturn election results, was blocked in the state House after Democrats staged a dramatic walkout before a midnight deadline, denying Republicans the necessary quorum to pass it.)

Following the adoption of the Mississippi plan and failure of the Lodge bill, by 1907 every Southern state had changed its constitution to disenfranchise Black voters, through poll taxes, literacy tests, property requirements, and complex registration and residency laws. The number of Black registered voters in Mississippi fell from 130,483 in 1876 to 1,264 by 1900 in Louisiana from roughly 130,000 in 1896 to 1,342 in 1904 in Alabama’s Black Belt counties from 79,311 in 1900 to 1,081 in 1901.

By the early 1900s, only 7 percent of Black residents were registered to vote in seven Southern states, according to data compiled by the historian Morgan Kousser, and Black turnout fell from 61 percent of the voting-age population in 1880 to just 2 percent in 1912.

“The failure of the Lodge bill was taken by the white South as a go-ahead,” says Foner. “‘The Republican Party has given up, and therefore we can go forward.’”

Once voting rights are taken away, the history of Reconstruction shows how difficult it is to get them back. If Congress fails to act, don’t expect the courts to step in.

In 1898, the US Supreme Court upheld the Mississippi plan, despite clear evidence of Black disenfranchisement and the racial motivations behind it. The law’s provisions “do not on their face discriminate between the races, and it has not been shown that their actual administration was evil, only that evil was possible under them,” Justice Joseph McKenna wrote.

Five years later, Jackson Giles, president of the Colored Men’s Suffrage Association of Alabama, challenged Alabama’s literacy test on behalf of 5,000 Black citizens in Montgomery. Giles had voted in Montgomery for 30 years before the new constitution disenfranchised him. Yet the Supreme Court said there was nothing it could do to help him. “Relief from a great political wrong, if done, as alleged, by the people of a state and the state itself, must be given by them or by the legislative and political department of the government of the United States,” wrote Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1903.

The states’ rights jurisprudence of the post-Reconstruction court has been resurrected by today’s court, which under Chief Justice John Roberts has gutted the Voting Rights Act, refused to overturn partisan gerrymandering, and almost completely turned its back on efforts to protect voting rights for communities of color. The 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder—when the court’s conservative majority ruled that states like Georgia and Mississippi, with a history of discrimination, no longer needed to clear their voting changes with the federal government—had an impact similar to Hayes’ decision to withdraw federal troops from the South in 1877. The federal government, it was clear, had abandoned its commitment to enforce the Reconstruction Amendments to the Constitution.

“The only thing that protects people’s access to the vote is federal protection, federal intervention,” says Northwestern University historian Kate Masur. “If nothing else, that pattern is clear in US history.”

On March 17, 2021, a week before Georgia passed its voter suppression law, Raphael Warnock gave his maiden speech on the floor of the US Senate. Like Henry McNeal Turner, Warnock was a preacher before he became a politician, and his election was followed by a horrific act of violence.

“We elected Georgia’s first African American and Jewish senator, and, hours later, the Capitol was assaulted,” Warnock told his colleagues. “We see in just a few precious hours the tension very much alive in the soul of America.”

When he was born in 1969, Warnock said, Georgia still had two arch-segregationist senators, Richard B. Russell and Herman E. Talmadge. After the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, Talmadge predicted that “blood will run in the streets of Atlanta” if schools were desegregated. When Talmadge’s father, Eugene, the state’s longtime segregationist governor, was asked in 1946 how he would keep Blacks away from the polls after the federal courts invalidated the state’s whites-only primary, he picked up a scrap of paper and wrote a single word: “pistols.”

Warnock noted that he now held the Senate seat “where Herman E. Talmadge sat.” That was progress, but the immediate backlash showed just how entrenched the reactionary forces in American politics had become. At the time, 250 bills had been introduced at the state level to restrict voting rights. One month later, when Warnock testified at a Senate hearing on “Jim Crow 2021,” the number of proposed restrictions had increased by more than 100, and Georgia was at the center of a heated national debate over voter suppression. “I come here today to stress the critical need for the federal government to act urgently to protect the sacred right to vote,” he said.

The last time that happened, when Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, he compared it to the last battle over slavery, to redress not just the country’s original sin, but the failed hope of Reconstruction. The Union victory at Appomattox was “an American victory but also a Negro victory,” Johnson said. “Yet for almost a century, the promise of that day was not fulfilled.”

Warnock said he thought often about what would have happened if the Voting Rights Act had not passed in 1965, if the country had not intervened to enforce the 15th Amendment after it had been ignored for so many years. “If we had not acted in 1965, what would our country look like?” he asked his fellow senators. “Surely, I would not be sitting here. Only the 11th Black senator in the history of our country. And the first Black senator in Georgia. And maybe that’s the point.”

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The Insurrection Was a Return to Jim Crow-Era Violent Voter Suppression

On January 6, our nation experienced a brazen and violent attack on our democracy by domestic terrorists intent on overturning a fair and legal election. In the aftermath, many have said that “this is not America.” When in fact the rallying cries used by these insurrectionists were recycled from the Ku Klux Klan when they used brutal violence to prevent Black Americans from voting in the 1960s. Make no mistake, these treasonous acts perpetrated by right-wing extremists represent a return to racially motivated violence that we have witnessed throughout American history, especially during the Jim Crow-era in response to Black voting and economic power.

As the Executive Director of The Andrew Goodman Foundation, I know all too well the violent backlash that racial progress engenders, particularly when it is gained through the ballot box. My organization’s namesake, Andrew Goodman, and his fellow Freedom Summer volunteers, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner, were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan while registering Black Americans to vote in Mississippi in 1964. Their killers were also domestic terrorists who saw Black enfranchisement as a threat to white supremacy. Sadly, what happened on January 6 follows that very same pattern.

Following the 2016 election, The Andrew Goodman Foundation joined forces with several voting, legal, and civil rights groups to combat the alarming rise of voter suppression policies that disenfranchised voters across the country. Throughout 2016 and 2018, we watched as these schemes became bolder and more sophisticated, and as a result, in the lead up to the 2020 election, we embarked on a national strategy that centered on activating, advocating, and litigating. We learned the playbook and developed countermeasures for the tactics that suppressed turnout in the 2016 election. We filed lawsuits and co-hosted a series of virtual summits. We had the distinct goal of empowering young voters, particularly Black students, and other targeted populations with strategies to overcome barriers to voting. We also utilized technology to reach millions, educating them about the pertinent voting requirements and deadlines governing elections in their states training them on how to leverage our digital tools to mobilize others on their campuses and guiding them through fixing their ballots if they were rejected. Voting rights organizations fought back against dozens of capricious policies that intentionally made it harder for students, particularly students of color, to vote.

Our efforts, along with a number of other voting rights organizations, were successful even in the face of a global pandemic and an onslaught of suppression efforts. Over 160 million Americans voted, the highest number in a century. Our collective success in overcoming widespread voter suppression ushered in a new era of racial and gender progress. Our elected Vice President is the first woman, African American, and Asian American to ever hold that office. The state of Georgia, once a hotbed for the confederacy, elected its first Black American and Jewish American senators to the United States Senate, reminiscent of the Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner’s Black-Jewish coalition. More members of the LGBTQ community were elected to Congress. And, it was Black voters that powered much of this progress.

If history has taught us anything, it is that when legislative attempts to oppress and suppress fail, then violence follows. This is why we must harness our collective power once again to ensure that every domestic terrorist is held accountable, including our elected representatives who incited or abetted it. We are already seeing disturbing signs that the violent extremists who participated in the coup attempt may not face consequences commiserate with their crimes or at all. If they are not held accountable for attacking and spreading feces throughout the sacred halls of our democracy’s Mecca, then their efforts will be legitimized and they will be emboldened to escalate their deadly violence.

We must continue to organize and demand accountability. But, most importantly, we must work to bring about the day when the fundamental right of Black Americans to participate in our democracy, whether by voting or demonstrating, is not threatened by legislation, intimidation, or violence.

Alexandria Harris, Esq. is the Executive Director of The Andrew Goodman Foundation and a graduate of Spelman College and Harvard Law.

This is an opinion piece that does not necessarily represent the view of BLACK ENTERPRISE.

Voter Intimidation and the Specter of Fraud

Tia was planning on voting until she met Winn and learned that she would be committing a crime.

Winn told her the story about a woman in Texas who was arrested and sentenced to five years prison time — pending appeal — for unknowingly voting illegally. Crystal Mason was on supervised release from prison for felony tax evasion by state law she was not eligible to vote, though she didn’t know it. She was surprised she wasn’t on the voter rolls and cast a provisional ballot. Three months later, Mason was called into court, arrested, and charged with illegal voting.

In North Carolina, 12 people in one county were charged with voting illegally while on probation or parole. The local prosecutor decided to press charges although no other district attorney in the state took action in similar cases in their own counties. The people who voted while still on probation were allowed to vote and did so thinking they had the full right to do so, and then were punished for it months later.

When North Carolina’s State Board of Elections audited the election, it found 441 “open cases of voting by suspected active felons,” with 16 sent to prosecutors, out of 4.8 million votes cast.

In Georgia, cases of potential voting fraud by people still serving felony sentences are brought before the State Board of Elections each year. Sometimes, the cases are bound over to the district attorney’s office. These cases do not tend to be prosecuted, perhaps to the chagrin of board members, meeting minutes from 2017 show.

Photo credit: Office of the Secretary of State (PDF).

Before Winn went to vote Friday, she called the Fulton County Board of Registration and Elections just to make sure she was eligible.

Fulton County’s voter registration manager, Ralph Jones, couldn’t answer Winn’s questions. The problem is, Winn owes restitution even though her case has been closed. At the state level in Georgia, it is not possible to owe restitution and close a case, or to close a case and still owe money.

In the end, he relied on the state’s voter rolls. Winn registered to vote months ago and hasn’t been removed.

“If you’re registered, I would say go ahead and vote because we clear the rolls every month,” Jones said. “If you’re still on there, you should be good.”

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Since President Obama was elected to office back in 2008.I had seen voters suppression tying to come back.My question is this ronald regan won twice big time.But no one said anything,there was no out cry of voters suppression. Clinton won twice but still no out cry of voters surppression.and now President Obama won big and now there is voters surppression laws trying to be enforced.Why? oh wait because he is black.My grandfather told me this 30 years ago.A white man shows up and say he went to harvard and yale and have masters in law and business,he was at the top of his class,and everybody takes his worded for it.A black man shows up and say he went to harvard and with to oxford have a phd and a master.everyone say prove it.and once the black man proves it,he have to prove it until the day he dies.

I think that this is a great article. It is much better and gives more information than most. I found it while trying to find a way to explain the Voting Rights Act to my daughter. It has been very helpful. The only problem I have with it is when it says blacks and whites, it many times neglects to say black men and white men. I am sure that the writers of this piece are fully aware that NO women were allowed to vote until way after men were all given the right to vote regardless of skin tone. The struggle for women’s suffrage went on and on as well with many heroes of its own, and atrocities as well (Alice Paul for one). I understand that this is on a Black Holocaust website, but I would think that the writers would want the clearest version of the truth presented. Half of the American Blacks you speak of are women as well. I thought you might want to revise this to include that.

Thank You :
Annie Sauter
Oneonta, NY
(Not far from Seneca Falls)

Thank you, Annie Sauter of Oneonta, NY. You have said what i would have liked to say, but you said it so much better. I would like to post some of your statement on my f/b page and will give credit to you- –
Jean Cottrell,
[email protected]

this didnt help me at all

i am so sorry for them but what gets me is that after all those years of slavery and now poeple are trying to do something about this

Thank you so much for the information it was very useful. – Billy Bob :D

Where is the part where the party that forced the voting rights act were Republicans? Sure Truman was a Democrat and signed it, but it was also a fact and well-known that Truman was STRONGLY against it. It should be noted that most ALL significant civil rights legislation was passed and supported by….Republicans. ONLY after this act passed and most obstacles to voting were removed did the Democratic party become the “minority-loving” party? Why? Obviously if they did not the Democratic party would have came to an end with blacks voting 100% for Republicans. See truth is Dems do not want to EVER have minority issues resolved. Why? Because they have nothing else to run on as a party. Before all the civil rights legislation was passed, they ran on racism. the only reason they know pretend to support it is because they have to. They have done a perfect job of portraying themselves as the saviors and the GOP as the devil, when it is actually the opposite. Blacks have voted for Dems for decades and they have not done a thing. Republicans done far more. Reagan on his own, made MLK a national holiday. History proves this. Dems have minorities all fooled. They deceive them to get their vote and stay in power. Period. Do blacks and latinos want real change? Do what Stephen A Smith recently said and just once….blacks people all vote for Republicans because Dems take your voted for granted and never have to earn it. you want something done though? Support Republicans who most are very strong Christians who put God first and have renewed minds and are born-again and would certainly do the right thin, despite all the fears and BS the Democrats use to demonize them. Sure we cannot let millions of illegals come into the country, I am sorry latinos, but that is just poor way to run any nation. Many nations are building fences all over the world…cannot let people just go back and forth across borders. It is nothing against a particular race, religion, etc…it is just unacceptable and no nation in the world allows this. Republicans stand on principles that are built on the rock, which should be respected and supported. They are not racist, they are the opposite. Dems just say all this stuff to scare you to get your vote. PERIOD. Absolutely true. Dems have historically been huge racists. Heck GOP could NOT win in the south! Are you blind? I hope so because foolish stupidity would be the alternative…STOP voting DEM, go to the GOP and say help us, we have been deceived by the wolf in sheeps clothing, the great deceivers…the Democratic party who fought tooth and nail against EVERY piece of civil rights legislation until the Republicans made the way….then we started voting for them and showed the Republicans no love and support for ALL they did?! Dont teach true history in schools no more. GOP got out and Dems omit all this from schools, make themselves look like saviors and good and push all their other ungodly ways while they are actually that same wolf….using the black vote and latino votes…they are snealy snakes…no doubt. keeping blacks in chains still by getting their votes to stay in power and not do a damn thing but talk like they are all about minorities. Dont do jack in reality! People are deceived and fooled and keeping their suppressors living like kings! Remember in 2012 election how the Dem leaders in Colorado talked about going and educating the idiots? meaning they can say whatever and yall will lap it up. They say one thing but do another…and yall vote for them over and over and over and over…wise up! Stop voting for ungodly suppressors who got minoroties in theor rich pockets. GOP are sensible and fair and loving and patriotic…for ALL! I promise you. All this is true. Want a united America? Get rid of the Dems and switch the the GOP and watch how things come together! Dems have NO CHOICE BUT TO DIVIDE US AND KEEP US DIVIDED! NEVER UNITE IS THEIR WHOLE MEAL TICKET TO GET MINORITY VOTES! WISE UP!

I think your only purpose in visiting and posting here is trolling.

Well said! It’s so sad that the party of oppression (Democratic) is masterfully portrayed by the media as the party promoting equality when in fact they’re promoting economic slavery by making people dependent on the government.

I see you’re a denier of the complete ideology shift between the two parties… sorry for you.

This is good information to let ALL people of Alkebulan know of the struggles we have been through, and is still going through to take our rightful place in the world, as earth’s rightful rulers. In the words of the Prophet Marcus Mosiah Garvey “Up you mighty Race, you shall accomplish what you WILL”

Voting rights in America have deteriorated over the years to the present 2016. Where voting rights were prohibited for Blacks now it is just plain useless to vote at all. Both parties have merged into a meaningless mass of rich people who make laws for the rich at the expense of everyone else. I support the only response to such a calamity and that is to not vote at all!

3. All-White Primaries

Picketers walking outside of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, demanding equal rights for Black Americans and an Anti-Jim Crow plank in the Party platform, July 12, 1948.

When literacy tests, poll taxes, grandfather clauses and the many other ways to circumvent the 15 th Amendment didn’t work to suppress Black voter turnout, white legislators in several southern states used all-white primaries to all but eliminate Black voters' presence in the electoral process.

In Texas, for example, the legislature gave the Democratic Party the authority to set its own rules. The party determined that it was for white voters only, excluding African Americans from its elections and effectively making local electoral politics dominated by one party that upheld Jim Crow laws.

After a white election official blocked a Black man, Lonnie E. Smith, the right to vote in the 1940 Texas Democratic primary, the NAACP's Thurgood Marshall and William H. Hastie challenged the case all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1944, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Smith V. Allwright that the Texas white primary system was unconstitutional.

“The right to vote in a primary for the nomination of candidates without discrimination by the State…is a right secured by the Constitution,” said the court in its 8-1 decision.

1890 Mississippi State Convention

At the 1890 Mississippi State Convention a new constitution was adopted that included a literacy test and poll tax for eligible voters. Under the new literacy requirement, a potential voter had to be able to read any section of the Mississippi Constitution or understand any section when read to him, or give a reasonable interpretation of any section.

“There is no use to equivocate or lie about the matter,” said James Vardaman in 1890. Vardaman served in the Mississippi Legislature at the time of convention and later became governor of the state. “In Mississippi we have in our constitution legislated against the racial peculiarities of the Negro. . . . When that device fails, we will resort to something else.”

The impact of the legislation was swift. By 1910, registered voters among African Americans dropped to 15 percent in Virginia, and under 2 percent in both Alabama and Mississippi, according to historian, Donald G. Nieman, in his book Promises to Keep: African-Americans and The Constitutional Order, 1776 to the Present.

Voting Rights Of Black Americans Trampled By 'New Jim Crow,' Civil Rights Advocates Say

By most standards, Desmond Meade is an overachiever. The 46-year-old is a fourth-year law student at Florida International University. He made the 2013 dean’s list. And he’s about to start working as a regional coordinator for a national anti-violence organization.

But, barring some unforeseen policy change, he won’t ever get the chance to practice law in his state. And this promising, African-American law student isn't allowed to vote.

Nearly two decades ago, after a struggle with drugs and alcohol led to a series of run-ins with the law, Meade served three years in prison. In 2005, he checked himself into a substance abuse program and stopped using drugs. Yet, because of a policy adopted by Florida Gov. Rick Scott in 2011, he is prohibited not only from voting, but also from serving on a jury and becoming a member of the Florida bar.

“I was in prison because I had an addiction to drugs and alcohol," he said. "Should I be ostracized for the rest of my life because I fell victim to the grip of addiction? No. Should I pay the price for any crimes I committed? Yes, I should pay the price. But once I serve my time, I'm still an American."

It’s a story told time and again in this country, even in 2013: A nonviolent offense brands someone a felon and strips them of their voting rights, sometimes for the rest of their lives.

More than a million of these disenfranchised Americans are black. Felony convictions restrict 13 percent of the country's black male population from voting, prompting critics to portray felon disenfranchisement as an heir to the voter-suppression tactics of the Jim Crow era. Back then, black people eager to cast their ballots encountered poll taxes, literacy tests and violence. Today, the mechanisms of disenfranchisement may be more sophisticated, but they can be just as oppressive, civil rights leaders say.

More than 30 states have passed laws in recent years requiring voters to display photo identification, which minorities and low-income Americans disproportionately lack. Just this week, North Carolina's Republican-dominated Senate approved a bill that would eliminate same-day voter registration, cut early voting by a week and require all voters to show specific forms of state-issued ID at the polls.

Then there’s redistricting, the political maneuver by which elected officials redraw the boundaries of representation, often along partisan lines. Critics argue that this practice has diminished the electoral clout of those minorities who do vote. In North Carolina, the Republican majority that passed the new voting laws benefited from a 2011 redistricting scheme that placed more than a quarter of the state's black voters in newly divided precincts and transformed the Republicans' 7-6 congressional district edge into a steep 9-4 advantage.

Today's attempts to erode the voting power of minorities amount to "the same face with a different mask," said John Lewis, the long-serving Georgia congressman and civil rights icon, at a recent Senate hearing on the future of voting rights in America.

The modern barriers to civic participation are not confined to the South. Voter ID laws have taken root in northern battleground states, including Pennsylvania and Ohio, and Iowa has one of the most restrictive felon disenfranchisement policies on the books. (Along with Florida and Kentucky, the state denies the ballot to nearly everyone who has ever been convicted of a felony, including many non-violent drug offenders.)

Still, few civil rights supporters see eye to eye with the five U.S. Supreme Court justices who ruled in June's landmark case on the Voting Rights Act that the election policies of districts with troubling histories of discrimination no longer warrant special scrutiny from the federal government.

In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg listed eight examples of race-based discrimination in the South's recent history, including one in Waller County, Texas, where officials attempted to reduce early-voting hours at polling places near a historically black college.

"Hubris is a fit word for today's demolition of the VRA," she wrote.

Immediately after the ruling, officials in Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina and Texas resurrected plans to pass laws that the federal government had previously deemed unconstitutional and discriminatory.

With fewer people in power to represent minorities and other low-income groups, lawmakers are less likely to invest in public schools or poverty programs, civil-rights advocates say. They’re less likely to support policies that help workers, like raising the minimum wage or requiring companies to offer paid sick leave to their employees. And they’re more likely to pass the same kinds of voting restrictions that arguably helped many of them gain power in the first place.

No ethnicity bears the brunt of these decisions more than blacks.

"There's a saying: When America catches a cold, black America gets pneumonia," said the Rev. Dr. William Barber, the head of the North Carolina branch of the NAACP and a progressive leader who helped spawn a local protest movement aimed at the state’s new voting laws and other conservative policies.

"Whatever pain Americans feel when the franchise of voting is suppressed," he said. "African-Americans feel it even more, in the kinds of public policy that are the result of not having a broader and deeper electorate."

It's hard to know exactly how many people have already been disenfranchised by voting laws across the country. Last week, in a trial over Pennsylvania's voter ID law, a statistician testified that hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians lacked the identification documents needed to cast a ballot. Some observers place the national number in the millions others say those figures are inflated.

Less disputed is the size of the disenfranchised felon population. "You're really locking out five or six million poor people from the electoral process," said Christopher Uggen, one of the authors of "Locked Out: Felon Disenfranchisement and American Democracy." "Their votes don't count and the major parties don't have to attend to their preferences."

Not everyone sees shades of Jim Crow in today's voting laws and criminal justice policies. Hans von Spakovsky, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation and one of the most prominent boosters of voter ID laws, dismissed the comparison as "ridiculous."

A former election official from Alabama, von Spakovsky lauds voter ID legislation as "just one of a number of steps that we should take to protect the integrity of the election." Although his opponents contend that there's little evidence of pervasive voter fraud at the polls, von Spakovsky insists that his motivations are practical, not political.

"There might be some people with a bad motive," but in general, he said, the conservative proponents of these laws are "truly concerned" about fraud.

In recent years, bipartisan efforts to end felon disenfranchisement have gained traction in several states. In Virginia, Gov. Bob McDonnell has begun restoring voting rights to certain nonviolent ex-offenders who've served out their sentences. And the decriminalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington in 2012 signaled the possibility of a broader change in the drug laws that have incarcerated so many blacks.

In mid-July, both houses of Congress held hearings on the future of the Voting Rights Act. Still, it's hard to imagine that one of the most polarized Congress in modern times will reach an agreement anytime soon. Certainly, von Spakovsky's presence as a witness at the House hearing did not strike many civil-rights advocates as a promising sign.

To Barber, the recent voting laws amount to an assault not just on blacks but on democracy itself. But as he points out, even the hardships of the Jim Crow era eventually gave way to progressive reforms.

Today's right-wing leaders are "trying to do everything they can to slow down a future they can't stop," he says. "They know that the demographics have shifted. They no longer control the South. They no longer control the nation. They can put a roadblock up and do some harsh things right now, but I have hope that ultimately the spirit of reconstruction and justice is going to win."

‘African Americans and the Vote’ is the theme for Black History Month in 2020

February is Black History Month, when Americans reflect on the significant roles that African Americans have played in United States history. This year&rsquos theme, &lsquoAfrican Americans and the Vote,&rsquo prompts Francille Rusan Wilson and Oneka LaBennett of USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences to comment on voter suppression and the need for advocacy for black Americans beyond Black History Month.

What the vote means to African Americans

Francille Rusan Wilson, associate professor of American studies and ethnicity, history, and gender and sexuality studies, studies the intersections between black labor movements, black social scientists, and black women's history during the Jim Crow era. She also is the immediate past president of the Association of Black Women Historians.

Wilson notes the timeliness of this year&rsquos theme.

&ldquoBlack History Month&rsquos theme in 2020, &lsquoAfrican Americans and the Vote,&rsquo recognizes the long and ongoing struggle of black Americans to exercise their rights as citizens, including voting, testifying in court and serving on juries,&rdquo she said. &ldquoIt also marks the sesquicentennial of the 15th Amendment, the centennial of the 19th Amendment and 55 years since the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

&ldquoToday, the theme is particularly timely as African Americans face voter suppression laws in more than 30 states that are aimed at black voters as well as women, the poor, rural and elderly voters. Black History Month was launched nationwide in 1926 as Negro History Week by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, founder of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), which continues to set the annual black history theme. In Los Angeles, the local branch of ASALH, Our Authors Study Club, has led the city&rsquos official recognition of the black history month since the 1950s.&rdquo

Who&rsquos paying lip service to black history?

Oneka LaBennett, associate professor of American studies and ethnicity, is author of She&rsquos Mad Real: Popular Culture and West Indian Girls in Brooklyn and an editor of Racial Formation in the Twenty-First Century. Elle Magazine ranked her &ldquoWomen in Hip Hop&rdquo course among the top 10 &ldquoCollege Classes that Give Us Hope for the Next Generation.&rdquo

LaBenett marks the need for extending advocacy beyond February.

&ldquoFor those of us in the trenches of black studies and social justice, every month is Black History Month. However, every year folks who are not routinely attuned to the socio-political issues African Americans face can come off as paying lip service during February,&rdquo she said.

&ldquoFor example, the month opened with President Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg airing Super Bowl ads featuring black women in a transparent attempt to attract this coveted and significant voting bloc. The criticism their ads faced perhaps signals a broader lesson not only for those seeking the presidency, but for all voicing support for black issues during the month of February: True advocacy for African Americans can neither be enacted in 60-second commercials nor within the confines of the year&rsquos shortest month.&rdquo

Watch the video: CNN: Jim Crow era travel guide (July 2022).


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