“The first fact that we need to understand is that America has a longer history of disenfranchisement than it does of enfranchisement. What do I mean by that? At the time of the American Revolution when America was finding its footing, more than two-thirds of the people who resided in the colonies couldn’t vote. You had to be white, you had to be male, you had to have property, and you had to be privileged. This history of America is a history of political exclusion . . . It was because people were trying to control power from the very beginning.”
–Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries, speaking at a Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools® training
When I moved to Mississippi in 1964 to head the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund office there, Black people in that state were denied their constitutional right to vote by procedural barriers, economic reprisal, and violent intimidation. The mere process of registering to vote was daunting for Black Mississippians. They had to find transportation to travel to the county courthouse, which could be many miles away. There they would be required to take a written “literacy test” and “interpret,” to the satisfaction of a White circuit clerk, the meaning of an arcane section of the Mississippi Constitution. This was an easy way to deny the franchise to even well-educated Black professionals who were routinely declared “illiterate” and thus determined ineligible to vote. Those who tried to register commonly had their names published in the local newspaper which would often result in their immediate dismissal by their White employers.
This kind of discrimination pervaded the South and was extremely effective. Some places like Holmes County, Mississippi, only had 20 Black registered voters in 1965 despite their majority population status. To reinforce this systematic disenfranchisement night riding Ku Klux Klansmen shot into Black people’s homes, bombed Black businesses, and committed other acts of violence. Terror groups didn’t hesitate to commit murder. Among those who made the ultimate sacrifice to secure the right to vote were Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers and Freedom Summer voter registration volunteers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner.
Although the sacrifices of the Civil Rights Movement are still fresh wounds for all of us who lived through them for some Americans they may seem like ancient history. But as the voter suppression and intimidation tactics happening right now are proving, there has never been a safe time in America to drop vigilance about attempts to shut people out of the vote, the lifeblood of democracy.
When historian Hasan Kwame Jeffries spoke at a CDF Freedom Schools training event several years ago he warned college-age young leaders that throughout America’s long history of disenfranchisement the same old threats have reorganized under different policies and new names. Today’s methods are at their most precise: “Before . . . the goal was to take the vote away from all African Americans. But if you understand how electoral politics works, particularly at the federal level but even at the local level, you understand that you no longer need to take the vote away from everybody . . . All you have to do is take out a couple thousand. That’s what voter suppression is about, and that’s what we’re dealing with today . . . Just make it hard enough for [a few] not to be able to go down on Election Day to vote, and you can carry the day. And they propose this legislation in state after state after state under the guise of democracy. It’s the most undemocratic thing that you could do.”
We are watching this happen now. When powerful forces chisel away at the ability to vote for some Americans they threaten the American promise for all Americans. No American should be complicit in allowing this to happen. It should have been little surprise that some desperate leaders and states would continue to make it as difficult as possible for citizens to safely cast their votes even during the ongoing pandemic. As Frederick Douglass warned us in 1857, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” He taught us that even when it is wrapped up in new euphemisms and better etiquette we must always be on guard for “the same old snake.” If that snake is rearing its vicious head in your own community right now, don’t give up!
If you have not already cast your vote, vote. Use your power as one citizen. Don’t let anyone take it away from you. Urge and help others in your family, neighborhood, and congregation to do the same. Go to CDF’s Voter Resources Hub to make sure you know what ID or documentation (if any) your state requires and where your polling location is for early voting or for voting on Election Day, because they may have changed since the last election. Prepare for long lines if needed. If you witness voter suppression, call the Election Protection Hotline at 866-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683) and make sure your friends and family know to do the same.
Let’s mount an urgent and systematic fight against the latest attempts at disenfranchisement and counter every single effort at voter suppression and intimidation with our own redoubled commitments to record breaking voter turnout. Our democracy and our children’s futures depend on it.