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The right to vote an uncertain pathway for African-Americans


The hard-fought gains of the 1965 Voting Rights Act were dealt a bitter blow last month when a Senate Republican filibuster prevented the passage of the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act.

The bill would have made Election Day a national holiday, ensure access to early voting and mail-in ballots—which became especially popular during the COVID-19 pandemic—and enable the Justice Department to intervene in states with a history of voter interference, among other changes. The legislation passed the House.

By a vote of 49-51, President Joe Biden was ultimately rebuffed by two Democrat senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Krysten Sinema of Arizona, who refused to change Senate procedures for this one bill.

Voting rights advocates are warning that Republican-led states nationwide are passing laws to make it much more difficult for African-Americans to cast a ballot. They contend it is an effort to consolidate polling locations while requiring certain types of identification and order other changes to reduce Black voter turnout which overwhelmingly favors Democrat candidates.

“This is not just another routine day in the Senate. This is a moral moment,” said Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga) shortly after the Jan. 19 vote.

Senate Democrats decided to push ahead with the voting package, despite the potential for a high-stakes defeat for President Biden and his party. Democrats wanted to force Republican senators on record—even their own party holdouts—to show voters where the opposition party stands.

“I haven’t given up,” Biden said shortly afterward.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has vowed to continue the fight and ridiculed Republican claims that the new election laws in 19 Republican-led states will not end up hurting voter turnout. Schumer compared the Republican opposition to former President Donald Trump’s “big lie” about the 2020 presidential election. For his part, Schumer has put forth a more specific rules change for a “talking filibuster” (for this specific bill) which would require senators to stand at their desks and explain their opposition to renewing the Voting Rights Act prior to holding a simple majority vote, rather than the current practice that allows senators to privately signal their objections.

The above measure is also expected to fail as Manchin and Sinema have said they are unwilling to change the rules on a party-line vote by Democrats alone.

Vice President Kamala Harris was expected to be the deciding vote, provided all 50 Democrats voted in favor of passage. Following the defeat, Harris suggested federal legislation is required to halt the steady nullification of the Black vote.

“We’re not going to allow [Republicans] to make it more difficult for people to vote, because we want everyone to vote,” Harris said. “We don’t want to tell anybody who to vote for, but is it not part of our American values to say that everyone’s voice matters? Everyone’s voice counts, and we want to encourage voters to use their voice, and then you make your choice about who to vote for. Let’s not encourage or allow laws to be passed that are intentionally making it more difficult for people to vote.”

House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-SC) put it this way: “John Lewis, others, did not give up after the ‘64 Civil Rights Act…so I’m telling everybody, we’re not giving up. If we do not protect the vote with everything that we’ve got, we will not have a country to protect going forward.”

From the ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870, to the Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013, here’s a brief timeline of the struggle to gain–and maintain–Black voting rights:

–15th Amendment ratified. The third of the three Reconstruction amendments, the 15th Amendment prohibited states from taking away the right to vote “on the account of race, color or previous condition of servitude.” States could still impose voter qualifications. In time, many former Confederate states did that.

–Colfax Massacre of 1873. A mob of about 150 armed White men in Colfax, the seat of Grant Parish, La., killed between 60 to 150 Black men who had gathered at the courthouse during a hotly-contested gubernatorial election. After Republicans narrowly won the election, an angry White mob exacted their revenge on Black voters present.

–Mississippi Constitutional Convention of 1890. In an effort to skirt the 15th Amendment and to functionally disenfranchise Black voters, the state’s constitution was rewritten to institute mechanisms including poll taxes and literacy tests. “Mississippi’s constitutional convention of 1890 was held for no other purpose than to eliminate the nig*er from politics,” said one of the constitution’s framers, Democrat James K. Vardaman, who would go on to become governor and a U.S. Senator.

—Wilmington Massacre of 1898. In Wilmington, NC, a White mob ejected a legitimately elected biracial government and installed White supremacists. Reading from the so-called “White Declaration of Independence,” Democrat Alfred Waddell, the mob’s leader, said “We will no longer be ruled, and will never again be ruled by men of African origin.” As many as 60 people were killed.

–Guinn v. United States 1915. The decision, joined by all eight justices who chose to participate in the case, found that Oklahoma’s grandfather clause exemption to literacy tests violated the 15th Amendment. While the decision had relatively little effect—the state merely found other ways to disenfranchise Black voters—the case would help to establish the NAACP which had filed a brief, as a key voting rights advocate for African-Americans.

–Smith v. Allwright 1944. An 8-1 decision would overturn a previous ruling (Grovey v. Townsend, 1935) concluding that it was in violation of the 14rth and 15th amendments for the Texas Democratic Party  to prohibit African-Americans from voting in the Democratic primary (aka the White Primary System).The NAACP would argue “[The decision]  signaled the beginning of the Second Reconstruction and the modern Civil Rights Movement.”

–President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The law prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and natioinal origin, and later was expanded to protect against discrimination based on sexual orientatioin and gender identity.

–Bloody Sunday, March 1965. Up to 600 activists set out in Alabama to march from Selma to Montgomery to advocate for Black voting rights. When the marchers reached the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River enroute to Montgomery, law enforcement gassed and beat the protesters ultimately hospitalizing more than 50 people.

“I went down on my knees. My legs went out from under me. I thought I was going to die,” said the late Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.)

–President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act (VRA) 1965. Designed to undergird the protections enshrined in the 14th and 15th Amendments, this watershed piece of federal legislation prohibits discrimination in voting. The VRA would greatly increase Black voter turnout in future elections, particularly those from 1968-1976 which saw an historic amount of African-Americans elected to public office. In the 2012 elections, the percentage of Black voter turnout exceeded that of White voters for the first time in American history.

–Recent extension of the Voting Rights Act. President George W. Bush in 2006 signed legislation extending the VRA for an additional 25 years, saying that “the right of ordinary men and women to determine their own political future lies at the heart of the American experiment.”

Following the Supreme Court decision in 2013 in the Shelby County v. Holder case, states in the south and beyond began to implement a wave of election changes to take advantage of the Court’s steady erosion of the VRA. The 5-4 decision effectively allowed jurisdictions with histories of racial discrimination in voting from having to gain federal approval–or “preclearance”—before changing their election laws.

In a renowned dissent, the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that “throwing out preclerance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

In 2019, a Democratic-led House passed HR-4, (aka the Voting Rights Advancement Act) to revise parts of the VRA that were gutted as a result of Shelby County v. Holder. HR-4 was not brought up for a Senate vote (at the time controlled by Republicans) and was later introduced in the House as the John Lewis Voting Rights Amendment which famously failed passage last month.

“I think the Republicans are certainly led by people who do not want us to participate in this democracy,” said Rep. Maxine Waters (CA-43) following the Senate vote. “They do not want us to have voting rights because it gives us influence. It puts us at the table. This is about not wanting us to be able to participate in policies that govern this country.”