The last five years bear proof that voting is a precious right, made real through two centuries of courage, and bloody violence. The extension of the vote, the collective voice of our political will, did not expand without difficulty or sacrifice.
In the early days of the Republic, the founders struggled to strike a balance between their own political interests, and those of the public. The founders considered citizens as too mercurial, too easily swayed, to be trusted with the vote. Only men of standing, knowledge, and property were qualified to cast ballots.
As populations moved westward, new states allowed all white males voting rights. Making use of “poll taxes,” farmers and tradesmen paid a fee to participate in elections. The money indicated that the voter had some means, and a stake in the community. Still, voting at that time was a boisterous affair, as men publicly announced their choices to officials. That practice, combined with hard liquor guaranteed election day ended with a bloody fight or two.
Political machines, like New York’s Tammany Hall, lined up voters like soldiers each election day. Bosses such as William Marcy “Boss” Tweed maintained power manipulating elections like clockwork, assuring outcomes before the votes were ever counted.
Women labored long and fruitlessly for the vote. Seeking rights of citizenship, women wanted not only the franchise, but the equal legal standing before the law. The forces of inertia and sexism held fast, believing ladies must stay home where they “belonged.” Politics was seen as too complex an issue for the female brain, as they were smaller, (I kid you not). More custom than written law, the practice of “coverture” considered the call for women’s suffrage as redundant. Women, as dependents, like their children, were legally “covered” by their husbands’ vote. He, as head of the family voted for the entire household.
Not until 1919, after a century of ridicule and abuse, did women earn the right to vote. And even then just barely. Once the 19th Amendment reached the Tennessee legislature for ratification, the bill passed by a single representative’s vote, making the state the 36th and last state to approve.
The path to black suffrage provides the most perilous story. Considered property in antebellum America, branded 3/5’s of a human being in the Constitution, these people faced impossible hurdles after the Civil War. While Union soldiers remained in the South as occupiers, black men voted, per the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. However, once the blue coats with their bayonets left, that moment of possibilities passed.
Black codes, a carryover from pre-war slave codes, and violence at the hands of homegrown terrorist (KKK, and the Knights of the White Camelia), a black man risked his life attempting to cast a ballot. After 1876, marking the end of Reconstruction, Southern society returned to “normal” with blacks clutching the lowest rung.
It took a World War to breathe life into the Civil Rights Movement. Even then white resistance pushed back against the movement. Through the courts, the NAACP argued that case law favored black suffrage. Falling back on the 14th and 15th Amendments, attorneys like Thurgood Marshall jousted against white supremacy at all levels of society. In 1964, Freedom Summer introduced a massive voter registration drive, garnering enough leverage to pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Old school Redeemers, like today’s Senator Mitch McConnell watched and waited to gut the law after the election of President Obama. McConnell argued with a black president, no need remained for the ’65 Act.
So where does that leave black and brown Americans today? Outraged. States, largely in the South are once again purging black voters from precinct rosters. Why? Because white supremacists in the South still feel they must suppress those voters to maintain white power.
Now that is redundant.
Gail Chumbley is the author of “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles are available on Kindle. Chumbley also penned two history plays, “Clay” and “Wolf By The Ears.”