Last week the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People announced that it is currently fighting suppression of the African American vote in this year’s Presidential election.  The NAACP and other groups have renewed the struggle for the right to vote, pointing out that some states are effectively restricting access to the voting booth for likely Black voters and the poor in a number of ways. Readers of this blog know that this is virtually old wine in new bottles.  As the first African American president runs for re-election, this effort to limit minority voting is just the latest battle in an all-too-familiar ongoing political struggle. Really–should anyone be surprised?

Throughout US history, there has been a sharp contrast between the rhetoric of a democratic political society and the reality of political power limited to a select few. See Minority Rules posted December 10, 2011. That entry on this blogsite points out that even with the popular vote extended to a larger group of voters over time, many methods are still at work to restrict popular political participation. For example, the Electoral College ultimately decides who wins the presidency, not direct election by voters.  This is one easy example of how “one man, one vote” is clearly a myth when the buck could stop at the whim of a handful of special electors. This method of presidential selection is only one example of how “representative democracy” is narrowly defined and restricted.

The creation of gerrymandered voting districts is another example of voter suppression. Further, as the “Minority Rules” entry points out, the US political system rooted in the awkward culture of American slavery has had continual negative consequences.  For African Americans, basic citizenship, the right to vote, and protection from those who would block their political participation have never been a given. Taking part in the political process for African Americans often comes in the form of exceptions to business as usual – as constitutional amendments and special legislation, both of them frequently following civil protest. As we witness legislatures demand proof of identity and legal residency as some of the ways to discourage poor and Black voter participation, it is useful to remind ourselves of the national history of disenfranchisement.

The right to vote is a central mythology of US democracy, bending its flowery public rhetoric around the bitter reality of inequality.  For example, ratification of the Constitution in the 18th Century required a classic contortion of logic now labeled the “Three-Fifths Compromise.” For purposes of both taxation and political representation, each African American represented three-fifths of a single vote. The reality is that Africans in the land at that time out-numbered European Americans by more than fifty percent.  Enlightenment Era notions of equality, liberty, and the rights of man have been confounded ever since by the status of Africans and their descendants in the United States.

In the19th Century, the Constitution was revised to include the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments granting full citizenship to African Americans, including the right to vote. The brief period following the US Civil War labeled “Reconstruction” was a time of momentary political power for African American voters and elected officials based on these amendments.  But not much later, these measures were overtaken swiftly by the restoration of the status quo. Political power was returned to the White electorate and White office holders as the Freedmen’s Bureau protecting Black citizens was disbanded, and a frenzy of Black voter intimidation was unleashed alongside the denial of civil rights protection across the board.  “The Redemption” is the label historians have applied to this era.

In the 20th Century, both night riders and White Citizens Councils made denying the right to vote one common cause in enforcing the codes of the Old South through intimidation. To break their hold, the modern civil rights movement made both the right to vote and school desegregation major objectives of full African American citizenship. In the matter of voting rights, these activists battled voter suppression imposed by literacy tests, poll tax, grandfather clauses (a family history of voting), other arbitrary obstacles, and blatant local terrorism. The cost to empower Black voters in the rural South was high. Some citizens and civil rights workers paid for these freedoms with their lives. The right to vote was not legally affirmed again throughout the United States for all citizens until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Today, with Barack Obama running for re-election as the first African American president of the United States, Black voters once again face the reality of laws tending to keep them from the ballot box. With the rationale of blocking voter fraud, a growing number of state legislatures, have enacted laws that tend to discourage minority voters, not just African Americans, but other ethnic minorities as well. Along with voter suppression, some states have adopted policies allowing police to detain suspected illegal residents, particularly Latin Americans. To Democratic Congressman John Lewis of Atlanta, a civil rights worker of the 1960s, these events must carry an eerie sense of déjà vu. Lewis who was arrested and beaten as a young man, like many others, for the right to vote is now urging a new voter registration campaign. He points out that new laws targeting minority voters frequently demand government-issued ID cards, strict proof of current residency, or challenge voter registration in other ways convenient to bureaucracies.

These are not the only strategies; systemic obstacles also exist. Over-represented in the criminal justice system, many African American ex-offenders have been stripped of the vote. In Kentucky, for example, restoration of an ex-offender’s right to vote requires a petition to state government.  Another tactic is to make voter registration difficult. In Florida, those volunteering to register voters have been hobbled by severe reporting restrictions, such as short deadlines for submitting paperwork. These are recent ploys in a long history of civil rights discrimination. In the 220 years since the United States Constitution was ratified, the Black vote is still a major reminder of the imbalance of American political power.  The score? The traditionally-empowered are still winning. What then is the counter-strategy African Americans and marginalized Americans should adopt?

The answer is to vote, bring someone along with you, and encourage your neighbors to do the same.  The right to vote extends far beyond the election of the next President.



William H. Hamilton, Jr., an Executive Board member of the Middle Passage Ceremonies and  Port Markers Project, contributed this post.