As students and parents at Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools® sites across the country study our nation’s history this summer, they’re learning about the long struggle for voting rights in our nation and the importance of the vote to a vibrant democracy.
One of their speakers was Hasan Kwame Jeffries, associate professor at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at the Ohio State University. Professor Jeffries described a common narrative about African-American history that woefully simplifies most of the last 150 years.
Jeffries explained to our college leaders how Frederick Douglass and others insisted on giving African-Americans the vote along with freedom when slavery was finally abolished, but the moment of promise after the 15th Amendment didn’t last long.
‘Peaks and valleys’
“How is it possible that African-Americans after slavery can have the vote in hand and then 100 years later from 1865 to 1965 are still fighting for the vote? We have to understand that American history is not linear or upward progress. American history is about peaks and valleys.”
After the brief peak of Black elected officials during Reconstruction right after the Civil War ended, the next valley began when Mississippi called a constitutional convention to look for ways around the 15th Amendment. The result was decades of new voting laws across the South requiring literacy tests, “grandfather” clauses that prohibited anyone from voting if their grandfather hadn’t, and other “colorblind” policies whose main purpose was actually to keep people of one color from participating in our democracy.
But during the long years of Jim Crow, African-Americans never lost sight of the prize. By the 1960s, the active fight for voting rights was back on the front burner and once again people were risking and giving their lives in order to be able to vote.
Fifty years ago, civil rights organizations, pushed by young Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organizers, came together to form COFO (the Council of Federated Organizations) in order to work together more effectively to secure the vote in Mississippi’s closed society.
They challenged the Jim Crow Mississippi Democratic Party by later establishing the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to challenge the segregationist regular Democrats in Atlantic City, N.J. in 1964. They held mock votes and ran candidates to demonstrate their desire for a fair voice in the electoral process.
Some lost their lives and suffered brutal harassment and jailings over the next several years, including Medgar Evers and three young civil rights workers – James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.
Although the sacrifices of the civil rights movement are still fresh wounds for all of us who lived through it, for another generation of Americans, they already are becoming ancient history. It is important that we teach our children and adults our history so that we do not repeat it or take our rights for granted by failing to exercise them.
Professor Jeffries warned that the same old threats are once again reorganizing under different policies and new names right now. He also warned that today’s methods are more subtle and precise:
“Before…the goal was to take the vote away from all African-Americans. But if you understand how electoral politics works, particularly at the federal level but even at the local level, you understand that you no longer need to take the vote away from everybody . . . All you have to do is take out a couple thousand. That’s what voter suppression is about, and that’s what we’re dealing with today, these efforts around voter identification, these efforts around felony disenfranchisement.
. . Just make it hard enough for [a few or some people] not to be able to go down on Election Day to vote, and you can carry the day. And they propose this legislation in state after state after state under the guise of democracy. It’s the most undemocratic thing that you could do. And this isn’t about party affiliation. It’s Democrats one day, it’s Republicans the next day, but it’s all anti-democratic.”
There has never been a safe time in America to drop vigilance about attempts to shut people out of the vote the lifeblood of democracy. Let’s mount an urgent and systematic state-by-state fight against the latest kinds of disenfranchisement and counter every single effort at voter suppression with redoubled commitments to voter education, voter registration, and voter turnout.
Marian Wright Edelman is president and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund (www.childrensdefense.org).