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The Politics of Power and the Precious Right to Vote

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“The first fact that we need to understand is that America has a longer history of disenfranchisement than it does of enfranchisement. What do I mean by that? At the time of the American Revolution when America was finding its footing, more than two-thirds of the people who resided in the colonies couldn't vote. You had to be white, you had to be male, you had to have property, and you had to be privileged. This history of America is a history of political exclusion... It was because people were trying to control power from the very beginning.”

As students and parents at Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools® sites across the country study our nation’s history this summer, they’ll learn about the long struggle for voting rights in our nation and the importance of the vote to a vibrant democracy. The college servant-leaders who are teaching the pre-K-12 children came to CDF Haley Farm near Knoxville, Tenn. in June for national training week. One of their speakers was Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries, Associate Professor at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at the Ohio State University. He spoke to them about the history of the black struggle for the vote and how the fight to control power by controlling the vote has a very long history in America. That struggle is still very evident in 2012.

Dr. Jeffries described a common narrative about African American history that woefully simplifies most of the last 150 years. That narrative says all barriers to voting were settled for good once President Johnson and Congress “gave” black citizens the Voting Rights Act in 1965 and now that we have President and First Lady Obama and their two beautiful children in the White House we’ve reached a wonderful “post-racial” moment in America. But as Dr. Jeffries carefully explained, this oversimplification has always been a myth -- or worse, a lie -- and to ignore current threats to voting rights shows an ignorance of history and a willingness to jeopardize our democracy and future.

Dr. Jeffries explained to our college leaders how Frederick Douglass and others insisted on giving African Americans the vote along with freedom when slavery was finally abolished, but the moment of promise after the 15th Amendment didn’t last long: “How is it possible that African Americans after slavery can have the vote in hand and then 100 years later from 1865 to 1965 are still fighting for the vote? We have to understand that American history is not linear or upward progress. American history is about peaks and valleys.” After the brief peak of black elected officials during Reconstruction right after the Civil War ended, the next valley began when Mississippi called a constitutional convention to look for ways around the 15th Amendment. The result was decades of new voting laws across the South requiring literacy tests, “grandfather” clauses that prohibited anyone from voting if their grandfather hadn’t, and other “colorblind” policies whose main purpose was actually to keep people of one color from participating in our democracy.

But during the long years of Jim Crow, African Americans never lost sight of the prize: “They redirected their energy, put it into community development, put it into land acquisition, put it into education... [but] they never gave up on the vote itself,” Dr. Jeffries said. By the 1960s the active fight for voting rights was back on the front burner and once again people were risking and giving their lives in order to be able to vote. Fifty years ago, civil rights organizations, pushed by young Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organizers, came together to form COFO, the Council of Federated Organizations, in order to work together more effectively to secure the vote in Mississippi’s closed society.

They challenged the Jim Crow Mississippi Democratic Party by later establishing the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to challenge the segregationist regular democrats in Atlantic City, New Jersey in 1964. They held mock votes and ran candidates to demonstrate their desire for a fair voice in the electoral process. Some lost their lives and suffered brutal harassment and jailings over the next several years including Medgar Evers and three young civil rights workers: James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. Although the sacrifices of the Civil Rights Movement are still fresh wounds for all of us who lived through it, for another generation of Americans they already are becoming ancient history. It is important that we teach our children and adults our history so that we do not repeat it or take our rights for granted by failing to exercise them.

Far too many Americans take the right to vote so much for granted they don’t even bother to exercise it. Dr. Jeffries warned that the same old threats are once again reorganizing under different policies and new names right now: “Those who were opposed to the empowerment of African Americans... never gave up trying to rob African Americans and people of color and poor people of the franchise... It's a continuous line that has never been disrupted, and today, as we move into the 21st century, we have to locate and understand that the efforts of voter suppression now are an extension of that effort then.” He also warned that today’s methods are more subtle and precise:

“Before... the goal was to take the vote away from all African Americans. But if you understand how electoral politics works, particularly at the federal level but even at the local level, you understand that you no longer need to take the vote away from everybody ... All you have to do is take out a couple thousand. That's what voter suppression is about, and that’s what we're dealing with today, these efforts around voter identification, these efforts around felony disenfranchisement... Just make it hard enough for [a few or some people] not to be able to go down on Election Day to vote, and you can carry the day. And they propose this legislation in state after state after state under the guise of democracy. It's the most undemocratic thing that you could do. And this isn’t about party affiliation. It’s Democrats one day, it’s Republicans the next day, but it's all anti-democratic.”

California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin have passed laws making it more difficult to vote. People of color, seniors, poor people, and the disabled face new barriers that we must take every step to overcome this year.

There has never been a safe time in America to drop vigilance about attempts to shut people out of the vote, the lifeblood of democracy. As Frederick Douglass made clear, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” He warned that we can never take anything for granted, especially black citizenship. Although it may be wrapped up in new euphemisms and better etiquette, he reminded that it’s the same old snake. So this year, let’s all be alert. Be active. Use your power as a citizen and vote. Don’t let anyone take it away from you. Let’s mount an urgent and systematic state-by-state fight against the latest kinds of disenfranchisement and counter every single effort at voter suppression with redoubled commitments to voter education, voter registration, and voter turnout. Our democracy and our children’s futures depend on it.

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