The Voting Rights Act, Its Reauthorization, and Its Relevance Today

A big topic of conversation for 2021 has been the For the People Act (HR1). HR1 is an expansive bill, spanning a number of voter issues including registration, early and mail-in voting, voter roll purges, election securing, campaign finance, and outlines conflict of interest and ethics provisions for federal employees. With the bill being hotly debated by Congress, we are reminded of other contentious battles over American voting rights legislation.

For decades, people of color and other marginalized groups were denied the right to vote and met with violence and intimidation when they challenged the status quo. Civil rights organizers worked at various levels to challenge the discriminatory laws and segregationist attitudes prevalent across America. During the height of the Civil Rights movement the increased brutality inspired greater activism, which in turn led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The landmark legislation sought to combat voting laws that discriminated against voters on the basis of race.

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Voter Suppression: Then and Now

Following the 2020 presidential election, the ensuing debates over the integrity of the election and the violence of early 2021, voting rights and efforts to ensure fair and safe elections seem as important as ever.

The Brennan Center for Justice’s State Voting Bill Tracker 2021 reports that in just over one month, hundreds of restrictive bills were introduced across the country, some of which have already passed and been signed into law. Georgia, Arizona, Texas, Florida and Michigan’s legislative battles have dominated headlines for many weeks.

As debates rage, many have invoked terminology we thought a distant part of our nation’s troubled history, calling these newly introduced voting bills Jim Crow laws. Looking into our past using resources in our collections can help us better understand the ways laws meant to protect marginalized citizens failed. Politicians cloaked systemic bias into law by utilizing coded language and proxies for race to deny people of color access to the ballot.

Literacy Tests and Poll Taxes

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Gerrymandering & the Attempted Elimination of Macon County, Alabama, 1957

Despite its fundamental political motive–to reshape voting districts in order to benefit the electoral chances of one political party–gerrymandering may be one of the few practices that Republicans and Democrats have in common these days.  Although the effects of Republican-led gerrymandering has arguably received more national attention during recent years, both parties have used this practice to gain political advantages. Districts across Maryland, for example, have been redrawn by both major parties during the last several decades.  Take Baltimore–a longtime resident in southern Baltimore may have lived in as many as three different electoral districts during the last 20 years.

While gerrymandering has been utilized to both maximize and minimize the electoral impact of different groups of voters, its geographic effect typically follows a certain pattern.  The shapes of different districts change every few years as a result of gerrymandering. However, in 1957 in southeast Alabama, the practice of gerrymandering almost led to the complete elimination of one county entirely.  The reason? To severely curtail the voting power of African-American residents.

Despite ever-present resistance from white, pro-segregation factions, including violent intimidation tactics used by white nationalist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, black voter registration in the South rose steadily during the 1950s.  A corresponding trend was also occurring in Macon County, Alabama–located about 40 miles east of Montgomery and home to the historically-black Tuskegee University. Whereas only 30 African-American residents were registered to vote in 1930, over 1,000–or roughly three percent of the total county population–were registered by 1957.  

Of course, this trend also created heightened concern among white southerners who feared that black voters would be able to curtail long-standing segregation laws across the region.  In turn, they worked with state legislators like Alabama senator Sam Engelherdt to develop and implement strategies to stop the growth of black voters.

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Disenfranchisement in Mississippi, 1954

On February 3, 1870, the United States ratified the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution.  The third and final amendment of the Reconstruction Amendments–enacted in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War to help rebuild the Union and establish a freer society unbound from slavery–prohibits states and the federal government from withholding a citizen’s right to vote based on that person’s “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”  After Iowa ratified the amendment on February 3–becoming the 28th state to do so and fulfilling the three-fourths threshold for amendment ratification–celebrations sprung out across the country.  

At the time, President Ulysses S. Grant claimed that the passage of the Fifthteenth Amendment “completes the greatest civil change and constitutes the most important event” in the nation’s history.  Many other Republicans believed that the amendment would finally guarantee black Americans equal rights under the law. Future president James A. Garfield even declared that the amendment would ensure black Americans control over their collective well-being.  Garfield proclaimed, “It places their fortunes in their own hands.”

Nevertheless, because the federal government failed to strongly enforce the Fifteenth Amendment at the state level after the Reconstruction Era, southern states used alternative methods to restrict the right to vote for black Americans.  For many decades after the ratification of the amendment, the state of Mississippi became one of the more deliberate enablers of disenfranchisement methods. By 1875, only five years after the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, members of the Democratic Party in the state developed what came to be known as the Mississippi Plan–a series of measures used to suppress the black vote and keep their party in power.  Eventually, these measures culminated in the passage of a new state constitution in 1890, which explicitly disenfranchised black voters through the implementation of poll taxes and literacy tests.

Disenfranchisement in Mississippi and other Southern states–enforced using voter registration measures like poll taxes as well as violent intimidation tactics organized by racist vigilante groups like the Ku Klux Klan–persisted throughout the late 1800s and well into the 20th century.  However, by the mid-1950s, events like the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the emergence of grassroot civil rights groups like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference helped spur rejuvenated calls for actions to protect the rights and well-being of African-Americans across the country.     

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Temperance as a Tool for Suffrage

Before women’s rights activists campaigned for suffrage, they called for prohibition. In 1852, four years after the Seneca Falls Convention, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony founded the New York State Women’s Temperance Society. They would not found the American Equal Rights Association until 1866. 

Stanton and Anthony fought for statewide prohibition in New York alongside divorce and other Civil Reforms– like the amendment of the Married Woman’s Property Law, which allowed for property ownership, suits in court, shared child custody, and the rights to earnings and inheritance– before they ever explicitly fought for voting rights. 

Beginning in 1866, they fought for Universal Suffrage with the American Equal Rights Association, but split from the organization in 1869 over its prioritization of suffrage for black men over women. From there, they founded the National Woman Suffrage Association. That same year, the National Prohibition Party was organized. 

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Racism as a Political Tool in the Southern Suffrage Movement

In 1870, the 15th Amendment stated that “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” This amendment gave many men of color the right to vote, though racist state and local governments almost immediately drafted new laws to disenfranchise them. 

Across the American South, racist politicians scrambled to restrict Black votes and maintain white supremacy. As soon as the federal government stopped enforcing the 15th Amendment after Reconstruction, Southern states successfully disenfranchised most Black men with Jim Crow laws and violent intimidation tactics. 

However, as the women’s suffrage movement regained popularity, Southern politicians feared not only that the proposed Susan B. Anthony Amendment would enfranchise Black women voters, but that it would re-enfranchise Black male voters as well. As Congress debated the Amendment in 1919, South Carolina Senator Ellison “Cotton Ed” Smith argued that “the southern man who votes for the Susan B. Anthony Amendment votes to ratify the Fifteenth Amendment.” 

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Women’s Suffrage: Lucy Stone

On May 1, 1855 in West Brookfield, Massachusetts, Henry Browne Blackwell wed Lucy Stone.  Blackwell and Stone’s marriage defied conventional social norms in several ways. For starters, Stone refused to take her husband’s surname–an almost unheard of break from social conventions of the period.  Blackwell and Stone took on what was perhaps an even more radical measure by formulating and agreeing to a series of protests that actively defied traditional ideas about marriage and gender. Among the stipulations, Blackwell and Stone agreed that they would openly resist any laws that exclusively gave the husband “control and guardianship of their children” and “sole ownership of her personal and use of her real estate.”  Needless to say, Blackwell and Stone’s marriage immediately drew ridicule and confusion across Massachusetts.   

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Why did some women oppose the suffrage movement?

When most Americans consider the history and legacy of the women’s suffrage movement, they think of larger-than-life historical figures like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Ida B. Wells, as well as momentous and impactful events like the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention.  In other words, people understand the suffrage movement based on the contributions made by people who actively advocated for the expansion of voting rights to women and who believed that, as equals, women should be able to help shape the institutions and policies that shaped their own lives.

On the other hand, fewer Americans today may know much about the communities of women who did not believe that women should have the right to vote.  Many today may not know that this group even existed in the first place. After all, why would women oppose the expansion of their own basic rights and privileges?

Typically made up of women from more privileged social and economic backgrounds, the communities of women who opposed suffrage were called several different names, including “anti-suffragettes,” “antis” and “remonstrants.”  One of the anti-suffrage groups who helped popularize the term “remonstrant” was the Massachusetts Association Opposed to the Further Extension of Suffrage to Women.     

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The Trial of Susan B. Anthony, 1873

On November 1, 1872–four days before Ulysses S. Grant was re-elected as President of the United States–Susan B. Anthony and her three sisters walked into a voter registration office in Rochester, New York.  After a local inspector contacted a legal professional and required them to take an oath of registry, all four women obliged and walked out of the office as registered voters. This was a surprising result, to put it lightly, as the state of New York would not allow women to vote for another 45 years, and nationwide suffrage for women would not be legalized for another 48 years.

Susan B. Anthony on the cover of the February 26, 1916 issue of The Suffragist
Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage newsletter collection

While this event was not the first time women attempted to cast ballots without the legal right, the developments that occurred afterwards generated unprecedented national attention and helped generate new interest in the growing women’s suffrage movement.  After Anthony, her three sisters and about a dozen other women successfully voted after completing the standard oath of registry, they were all arrested less than two weeks later on charges of illegal voting. The arrests were an unexpected and dispiriting turn of events, but Anthony–always a gifted publicist as well as a strong leader–managed to use the upcoming trial as an opportunity to expose the injustices of the current voting regulations and cultivate further support for her movement.

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Spotlight on Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was an abolitionist, women’s rights activist, and acclaimed poet born in Baltimore in 1825. Born to free parents and orphaned at three, Watkins was raised by her maternal uncle Rev. William Watkins, an abolitionist and civil rights activist, and his wife Henrietta. She was educated at her uncle’s school, the Watkins Academy for Negro Youth. While she was still very young, Harper worked as a nursemaid and seamstress for a white family that owned a bookshop. There, she discovered her love for books and filled her free time with reading. 

From there, Watkins grew up to become the first African American woman to publish a short story, and she published her first book of poetry, Forest Leaves, at age 20. Harper went on to publish another book of poetry, many short stories, and several novels, including her most popular work Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted. Watkins’ writing often addressed issues of race, gender, and their intersections. 

The poem below, “Slave Mother,” highlights the painful relationship between motherhood and Blackness that Harper observed during her lifetime. 

Heard you that shriek? It rose

   So wildly on the air,

It seem’d as if a burden’d heart

   Was breaking in despair.

Saw you those hands so sadly clasped—

   The bowed and feeble head—

The shuddering of that fragile form—

   That look of grief and dread?

Saw you the sad, imploring eye?

   Its every glance was pain,

As if a storm of agony

   Were sweeping through the brain.

She is a mother pale with fear,

   Her boy clings to her side,

And in her kyrtle vainly tries

   His trembling form to hide.

He is not hers, although she bore

   For him a mother’s pains;

He is not hers, although her blood

   Is coursing through his veins!

He is not hers, for cruel hands

   May rudely tear apart

The only wreath of household love

   That binds her breaking heart.

His love has been a joyous light

   That o’er her pathway smiled,

A fountain gushing ever new,

   Amid life’s desert wild.

His lightest word has been a tone

   Of music round her heart,

Their lives a streamlet blent in one—

   Oh, Father! must they part?

They tear him from her circling arms,

   Her last and fond embrace.

Oh! never more may her sad eyes

   Gaze on his mournful face.

No marvel, then, these bitter shrieks

   Disturb the listening air:

She is a mother, and her heart

   Is breaking in despair.

In her discussions of intersectionality, Watkins alienated many white suffragists. She criticized the racism and selfishness of their refusal to support the 15th Amendment. In response, she helped found the American Woman Suffrage Association, which actively supported the 15th Amendment. She was also active in the “Colored Section” of Philadelphia’s Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. 

Later, Watkins helped organize the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). The NACW focused on both black and women’s issues such as women’s suffrage, lynching, and Jim Crow laws, and became the most prominent organization of the African American Women’s Suffrage Movement. 


Post by Rigby Philips
History, specializing in women’s history and the history of sexuality
(2021)