African Americans often get overly involved in mundane issues to the extent that we allow major factors of oppression to continue unabated. Such is the case of voting rights for blacks in this country.
The 15th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1870, states that the “right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
Still, in spite of this constitutional guarantee and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the reality in 2005 is that, historically, the U.S. Congress has not, is not now, and conceivably will not write a permanent law that will give complete voting privilege to all African Americans.
Institutional white racism is alive and well as an indigenous cancer that seeks to negate any vestige of political and social gains earned by the blood, sweat and tears of our courageous black people of the 1960s.
Why do African Americans have to petition again in 2008 for the right to vote in some southern states? We have to look back in history for the answers. In 1870, 11 southern states (former confederate states) passed laws restricting the freed Negroes’ right to vote. Legally “dancing” around the 15th amendment, using mechanisms such as the poll tax, literacy tests (e.g. “How many bubbles in a bar of soap?”) and the grandfather clause.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was supposed to put an end to those mechanisms just mentioned but in actuality, it did not completely. It was a compromise to stop a potential black uprising in this country.
Every civil rights law enacted since 1957 has addressed voting rights, but throughout much of the South, black registration remained the exception rather than the rule. Only 7 percent of eligible black citizens in Mississippi were registered in 1964. In Alabama, the figure was 20 percent. Each of these civil rights laws had the same fatal flaw: they required blacks to prove discrimination in court.
African-American leaders then pressed the White House to authorize federal agencies to guarantee the right to vote by taking over voter registration or directly supervising local officials, just as the 1964 Civil Rights Act had authorized government action against segregation in education and public accommodations. Responding to their pleas, President Johnson, who was preparing a huge package of social legislation known as his “Great Society” program, asked Dr. King and other black leaders to “give the nation a chance to catch its breath” on civil rights.
But for movement leaders, this was asking too much. Never before had there been such large, sympathetic majorities in the house and senate, controlled by the Democrats. Opponents of civil rights, mainly Republicans since the early days of Reconstruction, lacked the numbers needed to block civil rights legislation.
Ignoring the howls of Southern senators, Congress passed, and President Johnson promptly signed, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The law was very aggressive. The Democratic legislators who drafted it knew that virtually everyone it added to the registration rolls would soon be voting Democratic.
The 1965 act’s main provision authorized the Department of Justice to suspend restrictive electoral tests in southern states that had a history of low black turnout. In these states the Justice Department could (and did) send federal officers into uncooperative communities to register voters directly. The states also had to obtain clearance from the Justice Department before changing their election laws.
Few laws ever achieved their goals more dramatically or quickly. Registration soared among blacks. For the first time, politicians from these Southern states began paying attention to the views of their newly registered black constituents. In 1970, when several Southern senators polled their colleagues about opposing an extension of the voting rights law, they found little enthusiasm.
But the “time limit” provision of sections 3 and 5 of the act was kept from the general public. It was in “small print,” amended to the bill by both houses to try to keep the Southern Democrats from switching to the Republican Party. It did not work. Soon after Johnson signed the act, Democrats in 11 Southern states “jumped” to the Republican Party like ticks from a dying hound dog.
Today Republicans control the entire government. African Americans must unite”not only to pass an extension in 2008, but for permanent voting rights, guaranteed by the 15th amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Frederick Douglass said, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. … Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Men may not get all they pay for in this world, but they must certainly pay for all they get.”