A brief history of how Black voting rights in America developed from the first Constitutional Congress in 1776 through the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Black vote has ebbed and flowed through the history of America. Experiencing some achievements during Reconstruction followed by major setbacks that would persist until the Civil Rights Movement. By the early 1960s, eligible Black voter registration hovered in the range of as low as 3-5% in some Southern locations. This was despite Black people making up the bulk of the population in several counties. It would take the combination of various Supreme Court rulings and laws to enable a surge in Black voter registration throughout the South.
America’s issues with voting rights officially date back to the first Constitutional Congress in 1776 and the following years where individual states were allowed to include religious restrictions in their state constitutions. When the U.S. Constitution was adopted in 1787 it granted the federal government the right to define and confer citizenship at a national level. But, unable to reach a consensus regarding voting rights, the states were given the power to deem which citizens were eligible to vote.
Representation in the House of Representatives would be dependent upon a state’s population. Northern and Southern delegates clashed on how this number should be calculated. Southern states only wanted free White men to be considered citizens but their lower population would result in less representation in the House as well as less taxation. In what would come to be known as the “Three-Fifths Compromise”, the states agreed to base each southern state’s representation in the House and taxation on the total of their free population plus three-fifths of it’s enslaved population.
Initially, some Northern states gave women and free non-White men the right to vote but they’d respectively lost this right in all states by 1807 and 1821. Other voter eligibility requirements such as land ownership and having European ancestry further limited citizenship and thus the pool of potentially eligible voters.
Following the end of the Civil War amendments were made to the constitution to both define citizenship and clarify the rights of the newly freed. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery while the 14th Amendment granted rights of citizenship and equal protection. Meanwhile, the 15th Amendment defended the other newly created amendments by restricting states from abridging voting rights based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude”.
With these amendments, the federal government was given the power and responsibility to defend the rights of citizens against states or any other entities that would seek to infringe upon them. Having been declared citizens, Black men were thereby endowed with the right to vote. During Reconstruction, Black men were elected to serve in Congress as well as various local government positions.
The ratification of the Reconstruction Amendments hobbled the social system that had been used in combination with slavery to oppress Black people. Throughout the South, a series of black codes and other biased laws were enacted to create a new social, economic, and legal system that would come to be known as Jim Crow. Jim Crow was intended to reinforce white supremacy through racial segregation and solidify the racial caste system that had been created during slavery.
With the compromises that led to the end of Reconstruction came federal abdication of the responsibility to protect Black lives and Black voting rights. Additional voter eligibility requirements unfairly burdened would be Black voters with poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses, etc. Threats, intimidation, and political shenanigans forced out or otherwise removed from office many of the Black officials who had been elected during Reconstruction. This resulted in Black people being unable to directly vote against discriminatory laws and practices or for individuals who represented their interests.
Despite the setbacks of the post-Reconstruction era, many individuals and organizations would continue the fight to achieve unencumbered voting rights for Black people. The Supreme Court waffled on the need to protect Black civil rights. In some cases, the court decided in favor of states’ rights to set voter eligibility guidelines. On other occasions, the Supreme Court struck down blatantly biased practices which it deemed unconstitutional.
Post World War II
Returning to America after World War II, many soldiers could not bear the hypocrisy of having fought for freedom in Europe while living with tyranny at home. Some of these veterans would become key figures in the looming Civil Rights Movement. Black women participated in both the push for Black civil rights and women’s suffrage. Women received the right to vote in 1920 with the ratification of the 19th Amendment. But race-based barriers would continue to prevent Black women from exercising their right to vote. It would be another 40+ years before laws would be passed to firmly reinforce Black voting rights for both men and women.
Besides legal maneuvers, White supremacists utilized acts of terrorism to suppress Black voter registration. For example, when a bomb was planted under the home of Harry and Harriette Moore killing the couple on Christmas Eve of 1951, it discouraged Black voter registration and turnout at the polls. The Moores were local NAACP and Progressive Voters League of Florida leaders who helped eligible Black voters across the state get registered. They had launched a successful voter registration campaign in the late 1940s that helped to boost eligible Black voter registration from 5% to 31%.
By the early 1960s, eligible Black voter registration was comparatively lower across the board than that of White people. It hovered in the range of as low as 3-5% in some Southern locations despite Black people making up the bulk of the population in several counties.
Smith v. Allwright
When Democrats climbed back into positions of power after the Civil War they forced Reconstruction to end. In retaliation for Republican intervention in the South, White voters became staunch supporters of the Democratic Party. Republican candidates were a non-starter in the South until the Democratic Party became linked with the progressive movements of the 1960s. This meant that while theoretically there was a national two-party democracy, there was only one party in the South.
In the South Black voters faced multiple hurdles in trying to vote. Biased voter eligibility requirements disenfranchised most Black citizens. Those who somehow managed to register to vote were then barred from participating in the region’s only competitive elections, primary elections that were often limited to only White citizens. Effectively, the White South would not vote for Republicans but also would not allow Black voters to cast votes for Republican or Democratic candidates.
With the founding of the NAACP in 1909, the organization would primarily wage the war for equality in courtrooms across the country. In 1944, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in the case of Smith v. Allwright that deemed all-white primary elections unconstitutional, overturning a previous decision in Grovey v. Townsend. Thurgood Marshall represented Lonnie E. Smith of Houston who was suing his county’s election official for the right to vote in the Democratic Party’s primary election.
The previous case had found that all-White primaries were not unconstitutional because they were managed by the Texas Democratic Party rather than the state of Texas. But the Supreme Court ruled the race-based disenfranchisement of an eligible citizen to be unconstitutional regardless of if the action was sanctioned directly by the state or an independent private entity. The ruling only struck down one facet of voter suppression but was important because it resulted in a surge of registered Black voters in the South, reaching an estimated one million voters by 1952.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964
In 1957 Congress passed an act to provide increased backing for the earlier Reconstruction Amendments by creating government bodies intended to provide federal oversight. The Justice Department and the U.S. Civil Rights Commission were vested with powers to investigate claims of race-based discrimination. But as the bill made its way through Congress, the Justice Department was stripped of the power to enforce the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision which had declared racial segregation unconstitutional. Lacking the authority to hold Southern states accountable they continued to develop schemes to suppress Black voting rights and curtail overall civil rights.
The Civil Rights Act of 1960 was intended to build on the previous act, broadening the federal government’s authority to enforce anti-discrimination laws. Backed by oversight powers, the federal government was now allowed to audit voter registration rolls, appoint individuals to help Black citizens vote, and could impose penalties on those who prevented eligible citizens from voting. Both acts would prove ineffective for completely eradicating Black voter suppression but laid the groundwork for later legislation. In particular, the Civil Rights Act of 1960 allowed for the collection of data and examples of race-based voter discrimination.
Over the next few years, civil rights leaders launched campaigns and lobbied politicians to obtain stronger legislation that would better protect Black voting rights. President John F. Kennedy expressed his intentions to present a new civil rights bill to Congress during a speech on June 11, 1963. But, segregationists strongly opposed the bill and it was still languishing several months after Kennedy’s assassination.
The 24th Amendment which banned congress and any individual state from requiring citizens to pay a poll tax or any other kind of tax to vote in federal elections was ratified on January 23, 1964. With this amendment, Congress was also vested with the power to utilize the legislation to enforce the law. It was a step in the right direction but not broad enough to address state and local elections or the countless other ways that some states attempted to deny Black citizens the right to vote.
On February 10, 1964, the House of Representatives passed the civil rights bill and it began its arduous path through the Senate sixteen days later. The Judiciary Committee would usually take the first pass at proposed bills but it was chaired by James Eastland, a Democrat from Mississippi who was pro-segregation. To avoid having the bill die with the Judiciary Committee as many others had, Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield bypassed the committee and brought the bill directly to the Senate. A month later the bill made its way to the floor where it was met with a southern filibuster and 60 days of debate. The filibuster finally ended on June 10 and the bill passed the Senate on June 19. With proceedings moving more quickly, the revised bill passed the house and was signed into law by President Johnson on July 2.
In its final form, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 provided greater guarantees for equal rights by striking down biased voter registration requirements, prohibiting segregation, and otherwise banning discrimination based on race, color, religion, or national origin. It also expanded the responsibilities of the Civil Rights Commission and created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) which had the power to enforce federal anti-discrimination laws related to employment. The Community Relations Service was formed within the Department of Justice to address conflicts within communities related to race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc.
Voting Rights Act of 1965
1964 saw several achievements in the fight for civil rights but in 1965 the powder keg of white supremacy exploded in opposition to progress. That March the South’s veneer of genteel was torn away and its violent oppression put on display for the world to see when state police brutalized participants in a peaceful protest for voting rights in Selma, Alabama on “Bloody Sunday”. But the country would also see the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) work with local activists to create the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO) also known as the Black Panther Party which promoted Black self-determination under the banner of “Black Power.”
Civil rights activists and organizations had continued to lobby for greater protection of Black voting rights. Riding on the momentum of a landslide election and passage of 1964’s civil rights laws, President Johnson pushed for stronger federal voting rights legislation. There was a less protracted battle over passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It cleared the Senate in late May, the House of Representatives in early July, and was signed by Johnson in early August.
Reminiscent of Reconstruction, it empowered the Justice Department to send registrars and observers into the South to help Black voters register and ensure the ethics of state and local elections. This new act outlawed the use of literacy tests as a voter registration requirement. Districts with histories of using such tactics to suppress voter registration and turn out could not change processes or procedures without preclearance (approval) from the U.S. Attorney General or the District Court for Washington, DC. It created a path for the Supreme Court to later strike down the use of poll taxes in state and local elections.
Overall, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was significant because it shifted power over voter registration and some elections from the states to the federal government. The combination of various Supreme Court rulings and laws resulted in a surge in Black voter registration throughout the South. With more Black voters now able to participate in elections, more Black candidates were elected for government positions and offices.
Yet, America did not become a perfect example of democracy and the Voting Rights Act would be contested in court. It expanded in some instances to provide additional protections. And contracted in others as sections were struck down in cases such as Shelby County v. Holder. Also, indirect attacks on the Voting Rights Act have included voter ID laws, voter purges, gerrymandering, felon disenfranchisement, and unfounded claims of voter fraud have been used as excuses for limiting voting options. Unfortunately, all these years later there is still work to be done to ensure equal protection of Black voting rights.
- Hartford, Bruce. 2018. “Voting Rights in America Two Centuries of Struggle.” Civil Rights Movement Archive. 2018. https://www.crmvet.org/info/votehist.htm.
Smith v. Allwright
- “Landmark: Smith v. Allwright: POLITICAL PARTICIPATION.” 2019. NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. September 2, 2019. https://www.naacpldf.org/case-issue/landmark-smith-v-allwright/.
- “SMITH v. ALLWRIGHT, Election Judge, Et Al.” n.d. Legal Information Institute. Legal Information Institute. Accessed August 22, 2020. https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/321/649.
- “Smith v. Allwright.” 2020. Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. July 8, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smith_v._Allwright.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964
- “24th Amendment.” n.d. Legal Information Institute. Legal Information Institute. Accessed August 22, 2020. https://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/amendmentxxiv.
- “Civil Rights Act of 1960, May 6, 1960.” n.d. U.S. Capitol Visitor Center. Accessed August 22, 2020. https://www.visitthecapitol.gov/exhibitions/legislative-highlights/civil-rights-act-1960-may-6-1960.
- “Civil Rights Act of 1964.” 2018. The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute. Stanford University. May 21, 2018. https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/civil-rights-act-1964.
- The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2020. “Civil Rights Act.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. June 29, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/event/Civil-Rights-Act-United-States-1964.
- “Landmark Legislation: The Civil Rights Act of 1964.” 2017. U.S. Senate. United States Senate. January 12, 2017. https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/common/generic/CivilRightsAct1964.htm.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965
- “Congress and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.” 2019. National Archives. The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. June 19, 2019. https://www.archives.gov/legislative/features/voting-rights-1965.
- The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2020. “Voting Rights Act.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. July 30, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/event/Voting-Rights-Act.
- History.com Editors. 2019. “Voting Rights Act of 1965.” History.com. A&E Television Networks. June 26, 2019. https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/voting-rights-act.
- Sturkey, William. 2018. “The Hidden History of the Civil Rights Act of 1960.” AAIHS. February 13, 2018. https://www.aaihs.org/the-hidden-history-of-the-civil-rights-act-of-1960/.
- “The Voting Rights Act.” n.d. Constitutional Rights Foundation. Accessed August 22, 2020. https://www.crf-usa.org/black-history-month/the-voting-rights-act.
- Bloody Sunday
- Selma [Movie Review]
- Selma, Alabama Black History Sites
- Reconstruction Era
- Before the Mayflower [Book Review]
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