Frontlash was an activist group, led by young adults, instrumental in increasing voting and political engagement among American youth and minorities. Frontlash also served as a training ground for future personnel in the labor movement. It was created as a nonpartisan organization to challenge political and electoral apathy among youth in the 1960s.
Frontlash stepped up their voter education efforts for young people when the 26th Amendment was passed in 1971. The organization sent members door-to-door, created poster displays, and set up public stands on sidewalks and college campuses to encourage wider political education and to register young voters. Later, they expanded their activities beyond voting rights to include international democracy and fair labor practices, such as child labor, apartheid, minimum wage, and workers rights.
This collection has extensive material related to instruction in labor organizing and union support, as well as significant material relating to Frontlash’s political activity. Types of records include organizational records, financial records, minutes, mission statements, reports, and photographs.
We are excited to announce the extension of our gallery exhibition Get Out The Vote: Suffrage and Disenfranchisement in America through August 2023. Get Out The Vote highlights the history of suffrage in America and specifically the fight for the right to vote for women and African Americans.
With the upcoming midterm elections, we hope that Get Out The Vote will inspire visitors to exercise their right to vote as well as illustrate the history of the expansion and contraction of voting rights. Get a sneak peek by visiting the online exhibition.
To learn about voting in early Maryland, the work of grassroots organizations, the unsteady progress toward greater enfranchisement, and more, visit us Monday – Friday, 10am – 4pm in the Hornbake Library gallery. To visit outside these hours or inquire about a personalized tour, contact us!
Post by Clio Reid, volunteer McGill University, 2023
The League of Women Voters is a national, non-partisan and grassroots organization striving to expand voting rights and get all people mobilized to vote. The League was founded shortly after the passage of the nineteenth amendment granting women the vote.
In 1921, the Women’s Suffrage League of Maryland affiliated with the recently formed League of Women Voters of the United States. The non-partisan organization has, throughout its history, focused on a number of causes helping to shape American history. In particular, the League has been interested in elections and voting, women’s rights, education, child labor, collective bargaining, food and drug legislation, housing, the Poll Tax, civil rights, and the Equal Rights Amendment. In addition to these concerns, the local Leagues have been interested in local issues, including redistricting and reapportionment, state taxes and expenditures, the Maryland constitution, and state and local election laws, balanced local development, improvement of health services, and the establishment of juvenile correctional facilities, busing, urban planning and zoning, transportation, housing, public health, public safety, voter services, and environmental quality.
The AFL-CIO’s Committee on Political Education (COPE) was founded in 1955 to encourage workers to participate in political life. COPE conducted research into legislative issues and politicians, organized grass-roots mobilization efforts to track the voting records of state and local legislators, interviewed and screened candidates running for office, and made endorsement recommendations to the AFL-CIO. COPE also worked directly with candidates for political office by providing financial contributions to those supportive of worker’s rights.
Focusing on union members and their families, COPE led registration drives, prepared public relations and education campaigns, and created and distributed publications about candidates and their positions on the issues affecting workers’ lives, such as health care, pension benefits, and safe working conditions.
The materials consists of correspondence, voting statistics, printed materials, and clippings pertaining to election campaigns, politicians, and political issues. While COPE may have compiled voting statistics and published some of the printed material, this collection contains mostly secondary material issued by others and collected by office staff.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”