Much has been made over the last year or so about a speech supposedly delivered by Camille Cosby. In it she talks about the Voting Rights Act of 1965 expiring in 2007. The prospect of this expiration has caused some very paranoid chatter on the 'net, on radio shows and other venues. So I wanted to explore just how the Voting Rights Act came to be.
I don’t know about you, but my parents instilled in me the obligation to participate in the vote. It’s our chance to express our views and opinions while maintaining one of the most important and hard-fought victories of the movement. In their generation, in their communities, voting for black folk was subject to literacy tests, poll taxes, good character vouchers and other disenfranchising strategies designed to keep black citizens from participating in elections.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 did away with all of that madness. The Act strengthens the 15th Amendment of the Constitution which guarantees that no person in the United States, should be denied the right to vote because of race, color or “previous condition of servitude". You see, prior to the Civil War, the Constitution did not protect the voting rights of citizens. While a few free blacks in the north were allowed to vote, the privilege was practiced almost exclusively by white men. Slavery, state law restrictions, and community standards prevented black people for getting to the polls. After the Civil War, Congress enacted a series of laws and amendments that provided for the re-admission of confederate states if they adopted certain standards. For instance, the Military Reconstruction Act re-admitted states that permitted the right to vote for all males. The 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, granted citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the United States. The 15th Amendment (1870) guaranteed everyone’s right to vote, overturning all state laws barring the black vote. Congress then enacted the Enforcement Act and the Force Act providing for federal oversight of the election. The result? All of a sudden counties and states all over the confederacy found Black people forming the majority of the eligible voting population. Black candidates began to win elections for local, state and federal offices.
Enter the Ku Klux Klan… The hooded ones tried to prevent the enforcement of the 15th Amendment through violence and intimidation. By 1876 the Supreme Court diluted the scope of the Enforcement and Force Acts and Federal troops were withdrawn from southern states, giving the Klan a stronger platform to execute violence designed to hinder black voter turnout. They also used fraud to "select" whites to offices previously held by blacks. Once whites regained control of these statehouses, they changed the boundaries of the voting districts to further weaken black voter strength and reduce the number of black elected officials (Isn’t re-districting still an issue among black elected officials??). The newly "selected" whites enacted state laws designed to re-build and entrench white supremacy. They instituted Poll taxes that discouraged blacks and poor whites from voting while blacks who paid the tax could vote but under extreme duress. Additionally, Party rules and state laws barred blacks from participating in the Democratic Primary!
In Texas (where my folks are from), the legislature (led by Democrats) passed a "white primary" law in 1923. Due to an unrelated Supreme Court decision, Texas Politicians saw a loophole that allowed them to conclude that the courts could not protect blacks who wanted to vote. The following year, Lawrence Nixon, a black physician and member of the El Paso NAACP challenged the white primary law in Supreme Court (Nixon v. Herndon). The Court found the White Primary Law unconstitutional – violating the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. But the ruling left open the prospect that Democrats could do privately what the State could not officially do. So they passed a measure giving the Executive Committee of each state the power to decide who could vote in its primary.
The Democratic Executive Committee adopted a resolution that allowed only whites to vote in its primary (In Texas, they used a similar tactic to wrest the vote from Mexican Ranchers). Again, Lawrence Nixon sued and won (Nixon v. Condon). This time, the Supreme Court ruled that the Democratic Executive Committee did not have the authority to speak for the party in this matter. Shortly after, at the Texas Democratic State Convention, Democrats adopted their own resolution to ban blacks and conduct White Primaries, replacing the executive committee’s resolution. This too was challenged in Supreme Court but the Court decided that the Democratic Party was a private organization and could decide who could and could not vote in its primaries.
We could go on and on here, but the end game is that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has guaranteed our right to vote. (A renewal debate is set for 2007)
But now, we face another dilemma. After all the aforementioned battles, there is great apathy in our community. And, there's an entire nation of black people who are not eligible to vote. According to the African American Registry (www.aaregistry.com) there are more than 1.4 million African American men who are not able to vote on Election Day because of past felony convictions. That’s more than the combined census of every black male and female living in Atlanta, Cleveland, Boston, Miami, Phoenix, St. Louis, Kansas City, Richmond, VA, Pittsburgh, Louisville, San Diego and Sacramento. Further if all disenfranchised former felons were included, the total number would be 3.9 million. This number would comprise the country second largest city. If they formed a state, they would be the 27th largest.
Only two states (Maine and Vermont) have no limitations on voting rights for convicted felons. Fourteen states permanently deny felons the right to vote (unless they apply for gubernatorial pardon), twelve states automatically restore voting rights at the end of incarceration, 32 states forbid felons from voting while on parole and 28 of those forbid felons from voting while on probation. Most of these felons are black folk. In Florida (scene of one of the presidential election crimes), 647,100 people are disenfranchised – more than any other state. Nearly a third of them are Black Men. Texas follows with 610,000 former felons. One Quarter of those are Black folk. Rep. John Conyers indeed has introduced several bills that deal with allowing convicted felons to vote in federal elections. But nothing has come about quite yet.
Get the picture? America has a history of keeping Black People from participating in the most powerful American right – the right to vote and decide how our government is run and by whom.
After all, isn’t it by the people, for the people? In the Struggle isn’t it Power to the People?? If we have the right.. then why are we so apathetic.