History of Voting

On January 31st, 1865, the Thirteenth amendment, abolishing slavery once and for all, was adopted by Congress. Though the amendment still had to be ratified by the states, that was more a formality than anything else. For all intents and purposes, slavery was legally dead in the United States.

    The mood in Washington that night was one of jubilation; the Republican congressmen who had fought tooth and nail to pass the amendment openly wept, and crowds of black and white people gathered in the streets to celebrate. Among the revelers was a Union army veteran named Charles Douglass, son of the famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass. He wrote to his father the next day, describing the scene. “I wish you could have been here,” he said, “such rejoicing I never before witnessed, cannons firing, people hugging and shaking hands.” 

    The elder Douglass, while surely ecstatic at the news, took on a more somber tone. Just because slavery had been abolished did not mean that black people were truly equal before the law. That, he said, would not happen unless they were guaranteed the right to vote. “Slavery,” he later wrote, “is not abolished until the black man has the ballot.” Without the right to vote, Douglass said, the freedman “is the slave of society, and holds his liberty as a privilege, not a right.”

    In the immediate post-war years, Douglass’s activism was rewarded by the passage of the 14th and 15th amendments, which extend universal suffrage to all men, regardless of color or creed (women, much to the chagrin of the early suffragettes, were denied access to the ballot box). Soon enough, these amendments bore fruit. By 1867, 80% of all African American men in the old Confederacy had become registered voters. Less than three years later, these newly enfranchised freedmen sent the first black representatives to the US Congress. By 1876, around two thousand African Americans would be elected to various offices throughout the South.

    Douglass could not have been happier with these developments. It seemed as though America was finally living up to its founding creed — that all men were indeed created equal (though to activists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B Anthony, the words “all men” could scarcely have seemed more poignant). But in spite of this, dark storm clouds were on the horizon. The old guard of the Confederacy would not go quietly into the night. Determined to end this experiment in interracial democracy, the former rebels donned hoods, and branded themselves as “the knights of the Klu Klux Klan.” These men unleashed a wave of white supremacist terror upon the South, targeting African Americans and their white allies. Though President Ulysses S. Grant sent in troops to stop the slaughter, the Klan met with horrifying success. When President Rutherford B. Hayes withdrew federal forces in 1877, over two thousand men, women, and children had been murdered in some of the worst political violence in American history.

    Douglass tried to remain optimistic in the face of this slaughter. “The sky of the negro is dark,” he told a crowd in 1883, “but not rayless.” One could be forgiven for thinking that this was a rather sunny portrait of the situation. Having successfully blocked freedmen from voting, black politicians lost access to their base of support and were summarily drummed out of office. White supremacist legislators replaced them, and passed the infamous Jim Crow laws. These, among other things, prevented black people from voting, turning practice into law throughout the South. But even this victory did not quench the bloodthirsty mobs of the postbellum American South — in 1883, an additional 77 African Americans met their deaths at the hands of lynch mobs. 

    Douglass continued the fight for equal rights for the rest of his life, but his time was drawing to a close — in 1895, he died of a heart attack in his Washington, D.C., home. And though Douglass was gone, his fight was far from over. A new generation of activists stood ready to pick up the torch.

    One member of this new generation was an investigative journalist named Ida B. Wells. Born into slavery in Mississippi, the young Wells was already known as a firebrand activist for her efforts to halt lynchings throughout America. Her journalism about the horrors of voter suppression and white supremacist violence was the stuff of legends. “If the American conscience were only half alive,” Douglass had told her several years before his death, “a scream of horror, shame and indignation would rise to Heaven wherever your pamphlet shall be read.” Despite her newfound admirers, Wells found that her work had endangered her life, and fled the South for the relative safety of Chicago — then among one of the least segregated cities in America. 

    Wells was convinced that lynchings would only be stopped once the right to vote was guaranteed; “With no sacredness of the ballot,” she wrote, “there can be no sacredness of human life itself.” Wells took particular comfort in the example of her home state of Illinois, where black voters and politicians successfully lobbied Governor Charles Deneen to pass and enforce anti-lynching laws. But, as a black woman, Wells found herself under attack from all sides; a devoted Suffragette, she was routinely iced out by the movement's white leaders. In 1913, at a Suffragist parade in Washington D.C., Wells and the other black attendees were told by the organizers that they would be relegated to the back of the march, out of sight and out of mind. Wells, infuriated by the idea of segregation at an event ostensibly dedicated to equality, refused. “Either I go with you or not at all,” she told the organizers. And, on the day of the parade, Wells donned a banner reading “Illinois” and marched alongside the white delegates. 

    Shortly afterwards, Wells returned home to Illinois, where she and her newly founded Alpha Suffrage Club successfully lobbied the State to pass an equal suffrage amendment. The country as a whole would follow suit seven years later with the 19th Amendment. 

    But while Wells’s women’s rights activism certainly paid off, her crusade for civil rights encountered far more difficulty; though lynchings were mostly on the decline in the United States, they still occurred with shocking regularity. In 1920, the same year the 19th Amendment was ratified, fifty three African Americans died to lynch mobs. Even Illinois descended into racial violence — in the Chicago race riots of 1919, twenty-three African Americans were killed by white mobs. 

    Wells, however, never gave into despair. She fought for the right to vote and the end of lynching all her life, but lived to see neither. She died in 1931, at the age of 68. Once again, it was up to a new generation to continue the fight. 

    That new generation found itself forged in fire on the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific, where, despite the horrific segregation they endured at home, Blacks, Asians, and Hispanics took up arms to defend America from foreign foes. In Europe, these men encountered a society free of the segregation which kept them repressed in the States; bars seated them alongside white soldiers, greeting them as liberators irrespective of skin color. “Look,” said actor Burgess Meridith in the US Army film “A Guide to Britain for Americans,” “that might not happen at home, but the point is, we’re not at home.” Such a statement could hardly have rung truer for GIs of color, who suddenly had a taste of what life could be like without segregation — and now that they had sampled it, they would not be denied. 

    Among those men who fought facsism in Europe was Staff Sergeant Hosea Williams. After nearly being blown to pieces by a German bomb, he was discharged and sent home to Georgia, where he was promptly beaten by a white mob for drinking from a fountain marked “Whites Only.” The beating nearly killed Williams — indeed, the only reason his attackers stopped was because they thought he was dead — but somehow, he cheated death a second time. This attack, and others like it, triggered the beginning of the civil rights movement. At the time, it had little support from white Americans. But change was coming, whether they wanted it or not.

Throughout the mid 20th century, the civil rights movement continued to pick up steam, boiling over in a town called Selma, Alabama, on March 7th, 1965. Several weeks earlier, a young black activist named Jimmie Lee Jackson had been murdered by an Alabama state trooper in an incident which remains morbidly familiar to modern Americans. To protest the murder — and to advocate for voting rights — six hundred protestors, lead by Williams and an activist from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Comittee named John Lewis, planned to march to Montgomery, Alabama. Lewis was, by then, a seasoned activist who had spoken alongside the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. at the March on Washington. “‘One man, one vote,’ is the African cry,” Lewis had told the audience. “It is ours too. It must be ours!”

    But shortly after the march got underway, the protesters got in what Lewis might have called “good trouble.” They intended to cross the Edmund Pettus bridge - named for the Confederate General and Klansman who had participated in the murder of African Americans during Reconstruction. The marchers were greeted on the bridge by state troopers who attacked them with billy clubs and tear gas — once again, a scene depressingly familiar to the present-day US. Lewis himself suffered a fractured skull at the hands of a state trooper.

    Lewis’s and Williams’s activism, however, paid off. The display of violence in Alabama shocked the American conscience, which, if not yet half-alive, at the very least had a pulse. Scarcely three months later, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law, ending old Jim Crow with the stroke of a pen. 

    But the fight was still not done, even as its warriors began to fall. King and Malcolm X, two of the movement’s strongest leaders, fell to assassin’s bullets. And while the forces of white supremacy had lost the day, they had not been entirely annihilated. They remained in the shadows, biding their time, and operating in far more insidious ways—through gerrymandering and voter suppression. Williams continued fighting all his life, but died in the year 2000. But John Lewis continued the battle, even as the other leaders of the civil rights movement lay silent in their graves. “There are forces — there are people who want to take us back,” he told an audience at the 50th anniversary of the march on Washington in 2013. “We cannot go back. We’ve come too far. We want to go forward.” But while none can doubt the progress that Lewis achieved, the momentum seemed, at times, stalled. While Lewis lived long enough to see the election of America’s first black President in 2008, he also lived to see voter suppression in Georgia defeat Stacey Abrams, and watched as President Trump, desperate to avoid an electoral thumping, used his powers to try to stop Americans from voting him out of office. 

    Lewis did not live to see the end of the fight either. On July 17th, 2020, he died of pancreatic cancer. 

    But while the warriors of yore have gone from the field, the battle rages on. It is up to a new generation of Americans to pick up the torch that was carried by men and women like Douglass, Wells, and Lewis, and, at long last, carry it to the finish line and sanctify that peculiar American motto; that “All men are created equal.”