By McDermott, Irene E.
Searcher , Vol. 20, No. 9
"I've seen this before. I've lived this before," declared Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., from the podium at the Democratic National Convention in early September. "Too many people struggled, suffered, and died to make it possible for every American to exercise their right to vote."
As one of the original Freedom Riders, Lewis experienced a turbulent time in American history. In 1961, a mob beat him for trying to enter a bus waiting room that had previously been designated for white people only. He was beaten unconscious again during the "Bloody Sunday" attack on the peaceful march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., in 1965.
While on the podium, Lewis described some of the obstacles placed in the way of black voters in southern states during that time period. "They had to pass a so-called literacy test, pay a poll tax. On one occasion, a man was asked to count the number of bubbles in a bar of soap. On another occasion, one was asked to count the jelly beans in a jar-- all to keep them from casting their ballots."
Having experienced voter discrimination firsthand, Lewis, who represents Georgia's 5th congressional district, is appalled by the new movement that restricts access to the polls in some states. "Today it is unbelievable that there are Republican officials still trying to stop some people from voting. They are changing the rules, cutting polling hours, and imposing requirements intended to suppress the vote."
Republican, Democrat, or independent, all Americans must feel concern at any American's disenfranchisement.
United States Voting History
Voting restrictions are not new. Indeed, when the United States was founded, only land-owning white men were allowed to vote. Many of the founding fathers wanted to restrict the essential duty of deciding important issues for the new republic to its elites: educated men with property and wealth.
Because it was so contentious, the U.S. Constitution, in Article I, Section 4, left the allocation of voting rights largely to the states, not the federal government. By 1830, most state voting laws had changed to give nearly all white male citizens suffrage regardless of whether they owned property.
The 15th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified after the Civil War, granted all male citizens past the age of 21 the right to vote regardless of "race, color, or previous condition of servitude." This was in spite of western states' objections that it would allow suffrage for naturalized Irish and Chinese men as well as African-Americans. But by 1890, Reconstruction had ended and former Confederate states set up barriers, including literacy tests, poll taxes, and physical intimidation and murder, to prevent black men from exercising their right to vote. These "Jim Crow" laws, which effectively kept blacks from the polls as well as segregating them as second-class citizens in most activities of daily life, remained in place for nearly a century.
After a century of struggle, women won the right to vote in 1920 with the 19th Amendment. In 1924, the Indian Citizenship Act finally granted enfranchisement to Native Americans.
Yet, some states continued to circumvent federal voting laws, effectively preventing both Native Americans and African-Americans from casting ballots. Starting in the mid-1950s, the civil rights movement began nonviolent protests against the segregation of blacks in the South. Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the Freedom Riders, among others, pushed back against the discrimination that had held sway for generations. Their peaceful gatherings were often met with violence. "Police turned water hoses on child marchers, homes and churches were firebombed and some protesters--white as well as black--were murdered" ("Voting Rights," M. H. Cooper, CQ Researcher, 14, Oct. 29, 2004, 901-924 [http://library.cqpress.com.crowell.idm.oclc.org/ cqresearcher]). …