Congress ratified the 15th Amendment in 1870, which prohibited states from denying a male 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. Centuries of it being illegal to teach a Black person to read, illiteracy rate of African Americans was very high.
Even educated Blacks would fail literacy tests that required them to recite the entire Constitution or explain the most complex provisions of a state law. Individuals had to establish that they had good moral characters, or they needed a registered voter to vouch for their qualifications. Some states in the Jim Crow South would require a person to pay a poll tax, which kept many poor Blacks as well as poor whites from voting.
Despite the challenges, African Americans made the decision that getting full citizenship was worth the risk. And risk they took, resulting in many Civil Rights activists losing their lives. Medgar Evers, the NAACP Mississippi Field Secretary, was murdered in Jackson, MS in his driveway in 1963. James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman were murdered in 1964 in Neshoba County, MS. Goodman and Schwerner were both white men in their early twenties from New York, and Chaney was a 21-year-old African American Mississippian. They were arrested by police on trumped-up charges and held until dark, then turned over to the Ku Klux Klan. The three men were beaten and murdered. It took four decades before anyone was charged with the three young men’s murders and 30 years before Evers’ murderer was brought to justice. All of these men lost their lives because of their determination that people of color would not be denied the right to vote.
Between 1961-1964 the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee (SNCC) led voting registration campaigns in Selma, AL. Early in 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) were persuaded to participate with SNCC to make Selma’s resistance 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 by an Alabama State Trooper for participating in a peaceful voting rights protest in Selma. Jackson’s death led to the decision to march from Selma to Montgomery. On March 7, 1965, SIX-HUNDRED marchers assembled in Selma at the Edmund Pettus 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; that day is known as “Bloody Sunday.”
James Reeb, a white Unitarian Universalist minister from Boston, who heeded Dr. King’s call for clergy to support the non-violent protest, was beaten by white segregationists on March 9, after 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, 1965.
The third attempt of the Selma to Montgomery march was successfully completed on March 25, 1965. It did not happen without additional cost. Viola Liuzzo, a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church from Michigan and the mother of five children, was murdered. Viola had agreed to help drive marchers back to Selma and was in the car with a young Black man named Leroy Moton when she was shot in the face by a Klan member in a car that pulled up alongside her on the highway. Moton survived the attack by pretending to be dead.
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 the 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(b) of the Voting Rights Act to determine which jurisdictions are subject to the pre-clearance requirement of section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
Since the watering down of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court, states that previously required pre-clearance have passed hundreds of voting restriction laws. Literacy tests may be the thing of the past, but dozens of states have enacted ordinances restricting early voting, closing of polling sites, stringent photo ID requirements, and purging voter rolls that disproportionately affect poor and minority voters.
The fight for voting rights has been long and arduous. It is a battle our fore-parents fought and thought they had won. Like so many gains made in the twentieth century, this twenty-first century finds us fighting these same battles over again. People of all races and religions sacrificed much in the fight for Civil Rights. For those who think that it doesn’t matter whether you vote or not, I ask you to consider the cost …