The 15th amendment prohibited states from denying a citizen, the right to vote based on race, color, or previous conditions of servitude. However, in mainly Southern states election officials unceremoniously denied African-Americans the right to vote. They were told they lacked sufficient literacy skills or that their applications had been filled out incorrectly.
Because of centuries of it being illegal to teach a Black person to read the Black illiteracy rate was very high. Even educated Blacks would fail literacy test that would require them to recite the entire Constitution or explain the most complex provisions of a state law. Individuals would have to establish that he/she had good moral characters, or they would need a registered voter to vouch for his/her qualifications. Some states in the Jim Crow south would also require a person to pay a poll tax, which kept many poor African-Americans as well as poor whites from voting.
Despite the danger, African-Americans made the decision that getting full-citizenship was worth the risk. And risk they took, resulting in many civil right activists losing their lives. Medgar Evers, the NAACP field secretary in Mississippi was murdered in 1963 in Jackson, MS in his driveway. James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman were murdered in 1964 in Neshoba County, MS. Goodman and Schwerner white men in their early twenties from New York, and Chaney a 21-year-old African-American Mississippian were arrested by police on trumped up charges and held until dark, after which the police turned them over to the KU Klux Klan, who beat and murdered them. It took 4 decades before anyone was charged with murdering these 3 men and 30 years before Evers’ murderer was brought to justice. All of these men lost their lives because of their commitment and determination that people of color would not be denied their right to vote.
Between 1961-1964 the student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee (SNCC) led a voting registration campaign in Selma, AL. Early in 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) were persuaded to participate with SNCC in making Selma’s intransigence to African-Americans voting a national campaign.
During the beginning stages of the campaign, a young black civil rights activist, Jimmy Lee Jackson was shot and killed, on Feb 17, 1965, by an Alabama State Trooper, for participating in a peaceful voters rights protest in Selma. Jackson’s death led to the decision to march from Selma to Montgomery. On March 7, 1965, 600 marchers assembled in Selma at the Edmund Pettis Bridge for the 54-mile march to Montgomery, AL. The marchers were ordered by law enforcement to turn around and when they refused, they were beaten. Fifty people, including Rep. John Lewis were hospitalized on that day known as “Bloody Sunday”.
People of all races and religions sacrificed much in the fight for civil rights. James Reeb, a white Unitarian Universalist minister from Boston, who heeded Dr. Kings call for clergy to support the non-violent protest was beaten by white segregationist on March 9, when Dr. King and 1,500 civil rights advocates made the second attempt to march from Selma to Montgomery. Reeb died from his injuries on March 11.
The third attempt of the Selma to Montgomery march was successfully completed on March 25. It did not come without additional cost. Viola Liuzzo, a Unitarian Universalist civil right activist from Michigan and the mother of five children was murdered. Viola had agreed to help drive marchers back to Selma. She was in the car with an African-American teenager named Leroy Moton, when she was shot in the face by a Klan’s member in a car that pulled up along side her on the highway. Moton survived the attack by pretending to be dead. Liuzzo was the only white woman to lose her life during the Civil Rights Movement.
It was Viola’s death that prompted President Lyndon B. Johnson to sign the Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965. This act was passed to overcome legal barriers at the state and local levels that prevented African- Americans from exercising their right to vote under the 15th Amendment.
Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act also was enacted in 1965 as temporary legislation. This section was designed to prohibit changes in election practices or procedures until certain states, with a history of racial discrimination were given an administrative review by the US Attorney General or by filing a lawsuit before US District Court of District of Columbia.
On June 25, 2013 the US Supreme Court held that it was unconditional to use the outdated formula in section 4 of the Voting Rights Act to determine which jurisdictions were subject to the pre-clearance requirement of section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Since the Supreme Court watered down the Voting Rights Act, seven states that previously needed pre-clearance by the AG have announced new voting restrictions. Although, literacy test may be the thing of the past, ten additional states have enacted ordinances restricting early voting, same day registration, stringent photo ID requirements, and purging of voter rolls that disproportionately affect poor and minority voters.
The fight for voting rights has been long and arduous. It’s a battle our fore-parents fought and thought they had won. Like so many gains we made in the twentieth century, this twenty-first century find us fighting these battles all over again. For those who think that it doesn’t matter whether you vote or not, I ask you to CONSIDER THE COST.
Writers note: This a reprint from a column that I wrote in November of 2016, before this current administration was elected. It seemed an appropriate time to remind us of what is at risk. This is one of the most critical elections in most of our lifetimes. Not only are the gains won by those who were martyred in order for African Americans to win the right to vote, today even more is at risk; women’s rights, healthcare for 20 million people, criminal justice reform, a non-partisan Supreme Court, the integrity of the vote, our democracy, and the very moral fiber of this country is on the ballot.