“I’m just one vote.”
“My vote won’t matter.”
“Them White folks gone do what they wanna do anyway.”
These are some of the many excuses given by some African Americans when it comes to exercising their right to vote; a right fought for by many people in this country—both Black and White—that has cost so many people so much; even their very lives.
Obtaining the right to vote was a major part of the civil rights history of African Americans in this country. However, many Black people have turned a blind eye to the struggle that it took to obtain the right to vote, flippantly taking it for granted today.
From 1880-1965, there was an all-out assault on preventing African Americans from voting by having their right to vote deemed invalid.
Those who sought to disenfranchise Black people knew the importance of voting. They knew that voting had a profound impact on representation, political outcomes and critical decisions that needed to be made concerning major issues.
Many southern states knew that the Fifteenth Amendment prohibited blatant disenfranchisement on the basis of race or prior enslavement, those states came up with a slew of new and innovative alternative techniques to disenfranchise African Americans.
The traditional techniques of violence, such as with the Ku Klux Klan, and voter fraud relative to vote counting, welcomed new friends to the game as these new methods were introduced to American politics.
After the ability to vote was extended to all races by the enactment of the 15th Amendment, many southern states enacted a poll tax as a means of restricting Black people from voting. A poll tax was a flat-rate tax levied on all members of a population, often as a prerequisite to voting, which often included a grandfather clause. This grandfather clause allowed any adult male whose father or grandfather had voted in a specific year prior to the abolition of slavery to vote without paying the tax. Of course, this was problematic for Black people, because no Black person had the right to vote prior to the abolition of slavery and, therefore no Black person could qualify.
Whites used impossible literacy tests to bar Blacks from the polls
The first formal voter literacy tests were introduced in 1890.
Literacy tests were used to keep Black people from voting and were administered at the discretion of the officials in charge of voter registration. Whites did not have to take the literacy test if they could meet the alternate requirements that systematically excluded Blacks. These included demonstrating political competence in person, which Black people tried to adhere to, or falling under the Grandfather Clause. If the official wanted a person to pass, he could ask the easiest question on the test. The same official would require a Black person to answer every single question correctly, in an unrealistic timeframe, in order to pass.
Southern states abandoned the literacy test only when forced to do so by federal legislation. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 suspended the use of literacy tests in all states in which less than 50 percent of voting-age residents were registered as of November 1, 1964, or had voted in the 1964 presidential election. After the passage of the Voting Rights Act, Black voter registration in the South increased significantly.
The names of individuals who lost their lives in the struggle for freedom during the modern Civil Rights Movement from 1954 to 1968 are inscribed on the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala. Those unsuspecting victims became martyrs, killed because of their focus on securing voting rights and fighting for the civil rights of Black people in this country.
On August 13, 1955 in Brookhaven, Miss., Lamar Smith was shot dead on the courthouse lawn by a White man in broad daylight while dozens of people watched. The killer was never indicted, because no one would admit they saw a White man shoot a Black man. Smith had organized Blacks to vote in a recent election.
Reverend George Lee, one of the first Black people registered to vote in his county, used his pulpit and his printing press to urge others to vote. On May 7, 1955 in Belzoni, Miss., White officials offered Lee protection on the condition he end his voter registration efforts, but Lee refused and was murdered.
On September 25, 1961, Herbert Lee, who worked with civil rights leader Bob Moses to help register Black voters, was killed by a state legislator in Liberty, Miss., who claimed self-defense and was never arrested. Louis Allen, a Black man who witnessed the murder, was also killed.
Jonathan Myrick Daniels, a White Episcopal Seminary student in Boston, had come to Alabama on August 20, 1965, to help with Black voter registration in Lowndes County. He was arrested at a demonstration, jailed in Hayneville and then suddenly released. Moments after his release, he was shot to death by a deputy sheriff.
On January 10, 1966 in Hattiesburg, Miss., Vernon Ferdinand Dahmer, a wealthy businessman, offered to pay poll taxes for those who couldn’t afford the fee required to vote. The night after a radio station broadcasted Dahmer’s offer, his home was firebombed. Dahmer died later from severe burns.
Jimmie Lee Jackson was beaten and shot by state troopers on February 26, 1965 in Marion, Ala., as he tried to protect his grandfather and mother from a trooper attack on civil rights marchers. His death led to the Selma to Montgomery march and the eventual passage of the Voting Rights Act.
There is so much at stake in this country for Black people during this upcoming midterm election. As things continue to play out in the news concerning issues like the highly-argued Affordable Care Act, Voter ID laws and criminal justice reform, African Americans have a real opportunity to let their voices be heard at the ballot box so that all issues impacting the Black community are thrust to the forefront of America’s conscience.
So many other groups in this country have taken the Civil Rights Movement playbook, crafted by Black activists, and used it to advance their causes and improve their situations.
The question now is, will Black non-voters continue to take their precious voting rights for granted, or will they embrace the unwritten obligation that each Black person has to ‘pay it forward’?
Time will tell. November will be here before we know it.
But Black non-voters need to register to vote now. There are no excuses. Time to stop being ungrateful negroes.