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Voting Rights Act of 1965

Booker T. Washington

Another One on Booker T. Washington

W.E.B. Du Bois



You Can't Keep an Empowered Voter Down.

Neda tries to gain some political power at the Old State Capitol in Atlanta.
Neda tries to gain some political power at the Old State Capitol in Atlanta.

The one thing I will say for the Southern white legislators is that they were creative. They were horribly racist and terribly discriminatory, but they were brilliantly creative. It must have taken a lot of imagination to come up with the various methods they used to keep African-Americans from voting.

The Reconstruction period immediately following the Civil War provided an opportunity for African-Americans to participate in society for the first time. With the 14th and 15th Amendments promising equality and the right to vote, African-Americans came out to register and vote in significant numbers. Many African-Americans were elected to office. Doors appeared to be opening, then sadly, they were slammed shut again.


SALLY!!! - Not only did I have to say goodbye to Becky this weekend, but also to Sally...

One of the reasons minorities were able to participate in politics during Reconstruction was the presence of federal troops. Even though the war had ended, the South was still under occupied by troops from the North. Once these troops were withdrawn, the disfranchisement (taking away the vote) of African-Americans started up with a vengeance. This is when the Southern whites began using their imaginations. They couldn't make a law blatantly stating that African-Americans couldn't vote, but this is what they did, just not in so many words.

It started with a series of state Constitutional Conventions, that originated in Mississippi in 1890. In the words of United States Senator Ben Tillman, the purpose of these Conventions was "to take from [the 'ignorant blacks'] every ballot that we can under the laws of our national government."


How did they go about doing this? How were African-Americans stripped of their hard-won right to vote? Here are some ways:

  • Literacy tests. This sounds pretty straightforward, right? A test to see if a person can read and write before they are allowed to vote. Oh, but this would not be sneaky enough for our imaginative legislators. The literacy tests were instead made to be very subjective and biased. Blacks weren't just asked to prove they could read - they often had to interpret bits of the Constitution, or recite it from memory. If you have studied the Constitution in school, you know this is not such an easy task! In fact, the literacy tests were so difficult, not even the people who administered them could pass. The use of these tests suggests that a lot of people would be prevented from voting, including whites. Yet, the same standards were not used for whites as they were for blacks. Alternatives to the literacy test were provided to those who owned property or were "of good character." These alternatives were used strictly to help illiterate whites keep their right to vote.

  • "Grandfather clauses." Many states made a rule that only those men whose fathers or grandfathers had registered prior to 1866 would be able to vote without having to worry about any literacy or property requirements. Now, let's think about this. Do you think that many African-American men would have been allowed to vote before the end of the Civil War? The chances are slim to none.

  • Poll taxes. The tax was a fee for the privilege of voting. It had the biggest impact on blacks, who were disproportionately poorer than whites. Wouldn't the poll tax disfranchise poor whites as well? Indeed it did, but the white elite were not too concerned about that.

  • The "all-white" primary. This meant that party membership and hence voting in the primaries was restricted to whites. Since political parties were groups of individuals and not controlled by the government, it was seen as a way to get around the 15th Amendment.

To top it off, whites also used harassment, intimidation and violence to keep African-Americans away from the polls. Did it work? Well, let's take a look. In Louisiana, 130,000 blacks were registered to vote in 1896. By 1900, this number had dropped to 5,000. In Mississippi, 70 percent of the black voting age population was registered to vote in 1867. In 1899, only 9 percent were. The same thing was happening in other states throughout the South. This basically meant that by the turn of the century, racial minorities could not meaningfully participate in United States politics.

Booker T. delivers the Atlanta Compromise
Booker T. delivers the Atlanta Compromise

The country was at a crossroads. There was conflict between the whites' demand for segregation and the African-Americans' demand for political and civil equality. Out of this, a man named Booker T. Washington offered a compromise. Booker T. was an African-American who became a prominent national leader after an appearance at the International Exposition in Atlanta in 1895.

In a speech he delivered, which later became known as the Atlanta Compromise, he urged African-Americans to forget about politics and instead focus on economic power. Booker T. believed that African-Americans should learn skills to help them become farmers or mechanics, not politicians. In this way, they could earn money and become self-reliant instead of looking for help from the government. Once economic power was gained, then political power would surely follow.

Neda stands firm in Atlanta… no compromises here!
Neda stands firm in Atlanta… no compromises here!

To the whites in the audience, he said, "In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress." This again stressed that segregation of the races was acceptable. At first, Booker T's speech was a hit, both among blacks and whites. People were cheering him on in the streets, but slowly, critics started to appear. One of the harshest critics was a black man named W.E.B Du Bois. He believed that Booker T. was foolish to think that economic power could be gained without political power. He insisted that African-Americans continue to fight for their civil rights rather than put up with inequality.

The debate between W.E.B and Booker T's philosophies characterized race relations in this period of time. W.E.B's movement led to the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which strived to address the neglected civil rights of blacks. Yet, despite all the talking and debating, the fact remained that African-Americans were still not able to vote freely. Slowly, very slowly, cases started to appear in front of the Supreme Court to challenge such measures as literacy tests and grandfather clauses. However, it was not until 1965 (that's right--only 35 years ago!), that Congress passed the Voting Rights Act to help protect the rights of African-Americans and other minorities in the voting process.

Where are we at today? Nationally, 64 percent of blacks are registered to vote compared with 69 percent of whites. Still a gap, but definitely a vast improvement. The trend towards empowerment needs to push forward - and fortunately, it's starting to do that.

Take Memphis, for example. Here is a city with a high concentration of African Americans but a pretty dismal voting turnout. So Stephanie and I visited a chapter of the NAACP at the University of Memphis to find out why. According to Tonie Johnson, a NAACP member and officer of the Black Students Association, many African Americans still look at the government as the enemy. "They don't want to do anything to support the government or help the system," she said. "Or maybe they just feel that they can't make any difference."

Tonie and the NAACP at the University of Memphis have been doing some great things!
Tonie and the NAACP at the University of Memphis have been doing some great things!

Luckily, there are people out there trying to change that, including Tonie herself. Earlier this semester, her NAACP chapter put on the Race to Vote, a series of events to inform people about the struggle African-Americans endured to get voting rights and the reasons why using your voice is so important. Part of this campaign involved a registration drive in which 383 new people registered to vote. Wow! Just imagine what would have happened if those 383 voters had lived in Florida! It might have made a big difference in the presidential election! As we have learned in the past month, every vote really does count!


Please email me at: neda@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Neda - Assassination, ballot box stuffing, and eating in the bathroom: it's American politicking!
Stephanie - Segregation and how the South kept its evil ways
Teddy - Impeach the President! Andrew Johnson, that is
Nick - You're crazy! You can't do that!!!
Making A Difference - Getting mad about hate groups