Christmas came in the middle of summer in 1965. President Lyndon Johnson signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act into law August 6, 1965. It was a crowning achievement of the Civil Rights Movement. It had been at least 75 years in the making. Mississippi and many other Southern states had changed their constitutions in 1890 in order to solidify and make permanent the disfranchisement of Black voters despite the adoption of the 15th Amendment.
On the one hand, this Friday is happy birthday to the Voting Rights Act. On the other hand, let’s prevent it from also becoming Memorial Day because voting rights are still the key to democracy and freedom.
It is more than ironic that when the 1890 state Constitution was adopted, Black officials all over the state were removed from office. It is more than ironic that 90% of Black men lost the ability to vote. It is more than ironic that Jim Crow laws began to multiply, returning the fate of Black residents to an existence of slavery by other names. None of this was ironic because it was all by design.
From at least 1890 until the signing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Black Southerners relied on getting out of the South as quickly as possible. Many who remained tried as best as they could to accommodate to the socio-political environment and to eke out a living, always hoping and praying for a better day for their children. Throughout this period, there was no pretending; there was no democracy in “the solid south.” It was purely white minority rule.
If one looks back at the Mississippi constitutions of 1817 and 1832, he/she will understand that voting and office-holding were reserved for white, male land-owners. They ruled without opposition.
This was interrupted by armed federal intervention and the establishment of the Mississippi Constitution of 1868. This brief period was called Reconstruction.
In the late 1870s, however, local white leaders returned with a vengeance. White leaders had studied the political landscape, especially what it took to disfranchise Black men, and thus render them powerless as had been the case during slavery. Since it had been illegal to teach enslaved people to read and write, most Black men were illiterate. Since they were freed from slavery with no wealth or property, most Black men were in poverty. Since there was little, steady employment, many Black men could be found loitering or wandering the countryside looking for work. White political leaders made the opposite conditions requirements for voting. One had to be a resident for a certain period of time, had to pass a literacy test, had to pay a poll tax, and could not have a criminal record for loitering or other such offenses. This created the condition that they desired, especially given the back-up of white racist terrorists in addition to law enforcement officers.
The vigor with which the voter disfranchisement provisions were enforced led directly to much of the activity of the Civil Rights Movement, such as the Selma to Montgomery March, the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project, and the challenge launched by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party against the seating of the all-white regular Democratic delegation. The leaders of the movement and their allies had studied not only the conditions, but the mechanisms and tactics used by the leaders of “the solid south” and white minority rule. It was they who then offered the ideas of what was needed in terms of legislation to protect the right to vote.
A reluctant President Lyndon Johnson listened to what the movement leaders were saying and saw what the “foot soldiers” were experiencing. They had learned from history, just as the Southern white leaders had learned. With that knowledge in hand, the 1965 Voting Rights Bill was crafted.
Among other things, the bill specifically outlawed the paying of poll taxes and passing of literacy tests as requirements for voting. The bill authorized the use of federal monitors and voter assistance personnel. It emphasized that the protection of voting rights was applicable across the country by especially prohibiting voting provisions that were discriminatory on the basis of race, language, and other such characteristics. The most important provision of the bill was the one that forbade jurisdictions that had histories of racially discriminatory voting practices from making changes in their voting laws without getting pre-clearance from the U.S. Attorney General or the federal district court in Washington, D.C.
Although the Voting Rights Act had been amended several times, it had stood the test of time, helping to increase voter turn-out and giving a boost to support for human welfare or “social goods” programs. The act was repeatedly re-affirmed from 1965 through the administration of President George W. Bush, the last time that it came up for such a vote.
Then, in 2013, as a result of the Shelby County vs. Holder decision, the then 48-year-old act was severely crippled. That decision rendered null and void the need for states to have to gain pre-clearance for voting laws changes. With that provision gone, many states have now passed laws that will directly impair the ability of Black, Hispanic, Native American, and immigrant voters; younger voters, especially college students; elderly, retired voters; and others who generally are more liberal or progressive in their political thinking. They passed the suppressive laws based upon what would reduce voter turn-out among those groups.
Needless to say, if or when these discriminatory or suppressive state laws work their wills, democracy will be diminished. It will become easier for conservatives and those bent on the idea of curbing certain types of freedoms to have their way. The struggle now is to assure that the spirit of 1870 and 1965 prevails rather than the spirit of 1890 and 2013. Democracy and freedom must be advanced rather than beaten back again.
The writer is not one of those who will declare that history repeats itself, but because human nature remains the same, those in power will do whatever they can to remain in power and those without power will do what they can to gain it. This sketch of Mississippi’s struggle, which is America’s struggle writ small, illustrates the point. It is this tug-of-war that continues to make the right to vote the key to democracy and freedom.