The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States

By Alexander Keyssar | Go to book overview

EIGHT
Breaking Barriers

BETWEEN THE LATE 1950S AND EARLY 1970S, the legal underpinnings of the right to vote were transformed more dramatically than they had been at any earlier point in the nation's history. In a cascading series of congressional enactments and court decisions, virtually all formal restrictions on the suffrage rights of adult citizens were swept away, and the federal government assumed full responsibility for protecting and guaranteeing those rights. Almost exactly a century after congress, led by Henry Wilson, had first debated the imposition of national, universal suffrage, it became the law of the land.

The historical stars were well aligned for such a transformation. In the South, a determined movement of African Americans stared down the threat of violence and reprisals to force the issue of voting rights into the public eye. The expansive dynamics of military mobilization and international competion were kept in motion by the cold war and the distant, but very hot, war in Vietnam. The Supreme Court, fueled by and enlarged conception of citizenship and a willingness to extent the powers of the national government, was actively promoting the rights of the disadvantaged. In addition, public opinion, molded by antitotalitarian conflict with Germany and the Soviet Union, was broadly supportive of democratic principles; the solvent of rapid economic growth took the edge off antagonism; and for a time at least, both major political parities saw more to gain than to lose from a broadening of the franchise.

For millions of Americans, these legal changes had concrete consequences as a simple as they were profound. A poor black woman in Alabama

-256-

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The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Preface xi
  • Part I - The Road to Partial Democracy 1
  • One - In the Beginning 3
  • Two - Democracy Ascendant 26
  • Three - Backsliding and Sideslipping 53
  • Part II - Narrowing the Portals 77
  • Four - Know-Nothings, Radicals, and Redeemers 81
  • Five - The Redemption of the North 117
  • Six - Women's Suffrage 172
  • Part III - Toward Universal Suffrage -- and Beyond 223
  • Seven - The Quiet Years 225
  • Eight - Breaking Barriers 256
  • Conclusion - The Project of Democracy 316
  • Appendix - State Suffrage Laws, 1775-1920 325
  • Appendix - Sources 391
  • Notes 403
  • Index 453
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