The Crestone Eagle • July, 2020

Racism & voting rights

by M. Diane Bairstow

Every month we are following the ratification of the 19th Amendment and considering women’s issues then and now. In July 1920, one state was still needed for ratification.

The passage of the 19th Amendment was a historic and empowering event for white women, but for African American women the road to enfranchisement forked at the Mason Dixon line. Although some Black voter suppression continued throughout the entire country, the Southern states enshrined it into law.

Black women in Illinois were credited in 1929 with the election of Oscar De Priest, the first African American elected to the House of Representatives since Reconstruction. Their sisters and brothers in the South had to pass literacy tests and pay poll taxes in order to vote.

After the Civil War the southern states enacted poll taxes and literacy tests to keep blacks from voting. The 2020 equivalent of $2.00 is $27.19. White voters didn’t have to pay poll taxes if their father, or grandfather, voted in a year prior to the end of the Civil War. This is the origin of the term being “grandfathered in.”

The term “grandfather in” originated when the Southern states enacted poll taxes. These only applied to blacks because a provision in the law exempted anyone whose father or grandfather had voted on a given year prior to the abolition of slavery. Literacy tests sometimes required Blacks to recite the entire U.S. Constitution or to explain complex elements of state laws. Polling officials would often tell Black voters they got the date, time or polling place wrong, or that they had filled out the application incorrectly.

In 1965, one hundred years after the end of the Civil War, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act (VRA) aimed to overcome legal barriers to Black voting at the state and local levels. But it took “ . . . the blood and effort of the Civil Rights era of the 1950s and ‘60s” to accomplish it, according history professor Yohuru Williams.

On March 7, 1965, peaceful participants in a voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery were attacked by Alabama State troopers with nightsticks, tear gas and whips. It was picked up by the national news and 5 months later, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.

In 1965 there were 6 African American members of the House of Representatives and none in the Senate. Six years later, in 1971, those numbers had increased to 13 and 1 respectively. In Mississippi alone, voter turnout among Blacks increased from 6 percent in 1964 to 59 percent in 1969. Today, of the 435 members of the House there are 56 Black Americans, 24 of which are women, and of the 100 members of the Senate, there are 3 Blacks and 1 is a woman.

Shirley Anita Chisholm in 1965 became the first Black woman to be elected to the House of Representatives. She later became the first Black candidate for a major party’s nomination for President, and the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Her campaign slogan was “Unbossed and Unbought.”

Carol Elizabeth Moseley Braun, from Illinois, in 1993 became the first female African American Senator in history. She was also the first female Senator from Illinois, the first Black Senator from the Democratic party and the first woman to defeat an incumbent Senator in an election.

The Supreme Court against the VRA

In 1980 the Supreme Court ruled that the VRA outlawed only intentional discrimination and that disproportionate impact did not constitute a VRA violation. Congress responded by amending the VRA. It established that the government is barred from placing a disproportionate burden on minority voters, regardless of intent. And it clarified that the VRA restricts both vote denial and vote dilution.

In 2013, the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in Shelby County v. Holder nullified preclearance, a requirement that historically racist states secure approval from the federal government before changing their election laws. Since then these states have closed at least 1,688 polling places and have purged voters at a rate 40% higher than that in other jurisdictions. Stringent, discriminatory voter ID laws have cropped up in these states too.

In 2019, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that federal judges had no power to stop partisan gerrymandering, proving once and for it, it was unwilling to rein in voting maps drawn to blatantly benefit one party.

Today, those who would kneel on the neck of the African American community have found protectors in the Supreme Court, the Senate and the Presidency. If you think this is wrong, VOTE!