Updated: Feb 6
Since the founding of this country, the law of the land has restricted the rights of Black Americans, holding them back from their white counterparts. From slavery to Jim Crow to the current attempts at voter suppression, Black Americans have had to fight for their right to vote in a centuries-long battle for equality.
To honor Black History Month, let’s go through the history of Black voting rights in the United States so we understand why we are where we are today, and what we must do in order to secure the freedom to vote for everyone.
Declaring Independence (for white men)
In 1776, the Declaration of Independence was signed, giving the citizens of this new country the “right to vote” and to choose a government that represents them! But the right to vote was actually restricted to property owners — most of whom were white male Protestants. This means that most Black Americans, even those who were free (let alone those subjected to slavery), could not vote.
When the U.S. Constitution was created in 1787, no national standard for voting rights was set, which handed over the power to states instead to regulate their own voting rules. (Remember this — it’s important later on...235 years later.)
With the end of the Civil War, former enslaved people fought to assert their newly-gained independence and gain economic autonomy. Southern lawmakers enacted the first Black codes in late 1865. In Mississippi, the law required Black people to have a written contract of employment each January, and if they left before the end of the contract, they had to forfeit any wages earned and be subject to arrest. In South Carolina, Black people were prohibited from holding an occupation other than farmer or servant unless they paid a yearly fee. These Black codes that Southern states enacted in 1865 and 1866 granted certain freedoms to African Americans but restricted their labor and activity and controlled where they lived and how they traveled.
In 1865, the 13th Amendment ended slavery in the United States, while the 14th Amendment granted citizenship and “equal protection of the laws” to all persons “born or naturalized in the United States,” including former slaves in 1867. The 15th Amendment, adopted in 1870, guaranteed that a citizen’s right to vote would not be denied “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Following this, nearly 2,000 Black men were elected to public office after a half million Black men were added to the voting rolls. Yay, we’ve reached equality!...right?
Introducing Jim Crow
Indeed, the ratification of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments after the Civil War granted millions of Black men, women, and children their freedom and the full rights of citizenship — and with it, the right to vote. However, just because Southern lawmakers couldn’t explicitly disenfranchise Black voters, that doesn’t mean they couldn’t keep coming up with ways to limit the political power of Black voters in other ways. And that’s precisely what they did, ushering in the era of Jim Crow.
These “Jim Crow laws” were simply reimagined Black codes, a collection of local and state statutes legalizing racial segregation. Neighborhoods, restaurants, theaters, public pools, hospitals, jails, and waiting rooms in train and bus stations were all segregated. Added on top of that was the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, terrorizing Black communities and lynching Black Americans. This increased violence and intimidation marked an oppressive society that was determined to keep Black Americans from living comfortably, safely, and equally in America.
Jim Crow also appeared in the form of voter suppression. While the 15th Amendment prohibited voting rights discrimination on the basis of race, it let states determine exactly what the qualifications to vote were. This gave many Southern state legislatures the ability to disenfranchise Black voters by setting those qualifications in the form of literacy tests, poll taxes, all-white primaries, registration requirements, and grandfather clauses. The KKK also used intimidation to keep Black Americans from the polls. These tactics limited the political power of Black Americans and prevented them from fully participating in our democracy until the 1960s.
Civil Rights Era
Securing voting rights and gaining equal rights for Black Americans became the primary focus of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 60s. Especially with many Black veterans returning from fighting in World War II only to be met with continued prejudice, Black Americans and many white allies united together and fought for equality at a grassroots level. On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested after refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a bus, igniting outrage and support that led to the start of the civil rights movement as we know it today. Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. led the March on Selma and March on Washington, and eventually segregated seating and segregated schools were ruled unconstitutional.
It was during this time that we started to see the government begin to get involved in an attempt to address racial injustices. On September 9, 1957, President Eisenhower signed the Civil Rights Law of 1957 into law, creating a commission to investigate voter fraud and allowing federal prosecution of anyone who tried to prevent someone from voting. Seven years later, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This law guaranteed equal employment for all, limited the use of voter literacy tests, and allowed federal authorities to ensure the integration of public facilities.
The following year, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, expanding on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by banning all voter literacy tests and giving attorney generals the ability to contest poll taxes, which were later ruled unconstitutional in 1966. The Voting Rights Act effectively prohibited racial discrimination in voting, enforcing the equal voting rights guaranteed by the 14th and 15th Amendment that Southern states subverted for nearly a century. After this, registration of eligible Black voters rose from about 23 percent nationwide before the passage of the Voting Rights Act to 61 percent by 1969. Now, we’ve finally reached equality!...right?
Modern Assault on Voting Rights
Since 1965, key provisions from the Voting Rights Act have been upheld by bipartisan majorities in Congress and signed into law by both Republican and Democratic presidents. However, in 2013, the United States Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder. In a 5-4 ruling, the Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to require states with a history of voter discrimination to seek federal approval before changing their election laws. It also took away the Justice Department’s ability to monitor and protect Americans' right to free and fair elections.
This ruling has moved us backwards in our voting rights efforts, resulting in a number of states making discriminatory election changes and passing new restrictions on voting, such as imposing strict voter identification requirements for voter registration and absentee ballots and limiting early voting and ballot drop boxes.
Ohio has recently introduced its own restrictive voting rights bill, denying our freedom to vote and cast our ballots freely, safely, and equally. On the national level, lawmakers used the filibuster and failed to pass the Freedom to Vote Act and John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. This legislation would protect Americans freedom to vote in each and every election by setting national standards and strengthening the government's ability to respond to voting discrimination (restoring and updating the full protections of the Voting Rights Act that were struck down in Shelby County v. Holder).
Our current struggle for voting rights is part of a centuries-long battle for equality in our participatory democracy. This modern attempt by politicians to protect the power for white, wealthy men at the expense of minorities, especially Black Americans, is really silencing our voices by attacking our freedom to vote.
As Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock said in March 2021 on the Senate floor, “We are witnessing right now a massive and unabashed assault on voting rights unlike anything we’ve ever seen since the Jim Crow era. This is Jim Crow in new clothes.”
What You Can Do
We need your help in fighting against Jim Crow 2.0, protecting our freedom to vote, and ensuring that every vote is counted — that every voice is heard in the decisions that impact our lives. Join the Ohio Voter Rights Coalition to hear updates on the voting landscape in Ohio and how you can take action when the need arises.
You can also join our Election Protection program, which ensures Ohio voters have the information they need in order to cast their ballot. There are many volunteer opportunities available, from being an ambassador to a poll monitor, and each role is critical to empowering voters and creating a more representative democracy, so please consider signing up to participate in these efforts!