Sojourner's Blog

April 4, 2015

The Historical Context of Voting Rights

Filed under: Subversive Screeds — brucehartford @ 8:41 am
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[Presentation given as part of a “Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Voices of the 1965 Voting Rights Struggle” panel at the San Francisco Museum of the African Diaspora, March 21st, 2015. The other panelists were SNCC field secretary Wazir Peacock, Selma student leader Charles Bonner, and voter registration worker Maria Gitin.]

The Alabama voting rights campaign of 1965 that all four of us were part of was not an isolated event. It did not spontaneously spring into existence. Rather it grew out of a long historical context, and it can only be understood within that context. We used to talk about “1st and 2nd class citizens.” But today, Bob Moses of SNCC analyzes the voting rights campaigns in the framework of “We the People.”

The very first words of the American Constitution are: “We the people … do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

It does not say: “We the states”
It does not say: “We the politicians”
It does not say: “We the 1%”
It says: “We the People.”

But who are “We the People?”

Abstract political debates aside, as a matter of practical politics those who are eligible to vote — and who actually DO vote — are members of “We the People.” They are what we used to refer to as “full-citizens.” They are the recognized stakeholders of our society. As a matter of practical politics, those who are barred from voting are not part of “We the People.”

When we were founded as a nation, a fierce political battle erupted over who would have the vote. In essence, it was a fight over who was included in “We the People.” We have been fighting that political war ever since, and we continue to fight it to this day. The issue of who has the vote continues to be a fight because those who are well-served by the status-quo want to limit the voting power of those who they fear have good reason to be dissatisfied with the way things are. And, of course, the dissatisfied and disenfranchised want to have their voices heard and counted.

In the Presidential Election of 1800, it’s been estimated that no more than 10% of the adult population were eligible to vote. The other 90% were barred from voting. They were excluded from “We the People.”

Well, who were these 90%?

Women — half the population — could not vote. In 1776, Abigail Adams asked the Continental Congress to support voting rights for women. Her husband John Adams told her, “Depend upon it, we know better than to repeal our masculine systems. … [We will not be subject to] the despotism of the petticoat…” For 151 years, women fought for the vote. They fought to become part of “We the People.” For their temerity, they were beaten, jailed, brutalized, and demeaned. But they carried their battle to every city, town, and rural hamlet in the nation. The Woman Suffrage movement was one of the longest, and most powerful, social movements in American history.

In the election of 1800, Native Americans could not vote. Indians did not win legal voting rights until 1927 — 140 years after the Constitution was adopted. And in many areas after 1927, white terrorism, legal tricks, and official fraud continued to deny them the vote long thereafter. Which is why the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) that we fought for in Alabama specifically included and covered areas of California, South Dakota, New Hampshire and all of Alaska, areas with a long and sordid history of denying the vote to Native Americans.

In most states in 1800, only white men who owned property could vote. Renters, apprentices, farm tenants, sailors, factory, and mine laborers could not vote. In New York City, for example, 75% of white men were denied the vote because they did not own property. The struggle to end explicit property qualifications was fierce and often violent. It lasted 80 years. North Carolina was the last state to end property requirements in 1856 — North Carolina, last in so many respects.

But implicit income restrictions were not ended until poll taxes were finally outlawed in 1964. And many of us believe that today’s new Voter ID laws are, in fact, a covert method of again limiting voting rights of the poor and elderly who don’t drive, and don’t have passports or concealed-carry gun permits.

In 1848, the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the War Against Mexico. It promised that Mexicans living in the conquered lands would be free American citizens with full voting rights. That did not happen. In Texas & California, legal voting rights were granted — in theory. But Anglo terrorism, legal tricks, & official fraud prevented all but a few from actually casting ballots. In Arizona & New Mexico, however, Mexican-Americans were legally denied the vote until 1912. During those 64 years, their lands and water rights were confiscated by judges & legislators elected only by Anglo voters. Across the Southwest for more than 100 years, Latinos fought and struggled for the vote — to be full and equal members of “We the People.” That’s a little-known struggle they don’t make movies about. A struggle that in many respects continues to this day. And, in fact, one of the best-kept secrets about the VRA is that it also won voting rights for Latino citizens.

Today, we see a Republican Party adamantly opposed to immigration reform. I believe their opposition stems from a combination of out-and-out racism and the fact that newly enfranchised immigrants tend to vote for Democratic candidates. In other words, immigration reform is also — in some respects — a voting rights issue because it impacts and defines who is included in “We the People.”

And not just Latinos. After the Immigration Act of 1870, and then the Chinese Exclusion Acts, Asian immigrants were denied the vote. Asian immigrants did not finally win full citizenship and voting rights until 1952 under the Eisenhower administration. One of the reasons that Japanese-Americans could so easily be rounded up and sent to concentration camps during WWII was that many of them had no vote, and were therefore not part of “We the People.”

As originally adopted, the Constitution defined slaves as property, not people. And in most states, free men of color were denied the vote through legal barriers or intimidation. Despite what the passionate defenders of “Southern Heritage” now claim, we all know that the Civil War was a war against slavery. But in a broader sense, it was part of a long, and still ongoing, fight to include citizens of African descent as full and equal members of “We the People.”

The Civil War did end slavery, but it did not end the fight over “We the People.” That struggle continued through Reconstruction, the Jim Crow era, the Square Deal, World War I, the New Deal, World War II, and the modern Civil Rights Movement that we four were part of. And as #BlackLivesMatter reminds us, in many respects the struggle continues to this day.

When I arrived in Selma Alabama in early 1965, I had only an abstract, intellectual understanding of the importance of voting rights. I knew it in my head — but not in my gut. That changed early one morning when an errand took me down to the basement of 1st Baptist Church, a block from Brown Chapel.

In Selma in 1965, the public, taxpayer-financed hospital would only see Black patients one day a week. They refused to treat civil rights activists at all. Which is why Rev. Reeb had to be driven 90 miles to a hospital in Birmingham before a doctor would see him — a distance that probably cost him his life. After Bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettus bridge, volunteer doctors & nurses with the Medical Committee for Human Rights set up an emergency aid station for injured demonstrators in the basement of 1st Baptist. Soon they were treating everyone who was excluded from the public health care that was routinely available to whites.

On the morning I’m talking about, a young woman came down the steps into the church basement. She was carrying a newborn infant just a few days old. Sick. Bad sick, even I could see that. And she was terrified. Absolutely terrified. For her baby — and for herself.

She lived on a plantation 10 miles out of town. The master had refused to let her take her dying child into town to see a doctor. He forbade it. Either because he didn’t want to pay the doctors fee, or he didn’t want her exposed to dangerous Freedom Movement ideas. Or both.

Somehow, through the grapevine, she heard about doctors who would treat Black patients in Selma. In the dead of night, like an escaped slave, she snuck off the plantation, trudged on foot, carrying her baby through the bogs and fields and rural ravines of Dallas County to the basement of First Baptist Church. She knew she could never return to the plantation. She had defied the Master’s edict. She would face his wrath if he ever saw her again. She knew that no matter what he did to her, he would face no sanction or consequences from any elected official or court. He could brutalize her, rape her, even kill her with no fear of punishment.

She had no vote, she was not part of “We the People.” She knew with dead certainty that not only would white officialdom fail to protect her, they would turn her over to the plantation master. So she had to give up her family, her home, and her few possessions, to save her child’s life. To go in fear of being forced back into a form of semi-slavery. She did not know these white doctors and nurses with the Medical Committee for Human Rights. She was terrified they would send her back to the plantation. I heard her beg them, over and over, not to send her back. Of course, they would never do that.

I don’t know what happened to her or her baby, my work was elsewhere. I never even knew her name. But I never forgot her because she taught me the human price of not being part of “We the People.” The human cost of not having a vote to hold politicians, sheriffs, and judges accountable.

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