Tag Archive for 'voting rights'

Remembering Octavius Catto

On October 10, 1871—141 years ago today—a 32-year-old African American educator and prominent civil rights activist was murdered during election day violence in Philadelphia.

Racial tensions, which were already high aftermath of the American Civil War, flared during the 1871 election, when mostly Republican African American voters faced threats and violence at the hands of white voters who sought to maintain Democratic control and prevent African Americans from voting, despite the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment.

Although city police were supposed to prevent violence, in some sections of the city they too took part in efforts to block African American citizens from casting their ballots. When Octavius Catto headed to the polls that day (carrying a revolver for protection), a white man fatally shot him three times in the street.

Although the identity of the killer was well known, he was never convicted of the crime; it was quite common at this time for white men to go unpunished for violence against African Americans. Catto was one of several individuals killed that day.

It would be over a century before efforts were made to commemorate Catto’s life. In 2006, the O.V. Catto Memorial announced a fundraising campaign for a memorial statute; in 2011, the city of Philadelphia pledged $500,000 to the proposed memorial.

To learn more, check out Daniel Biddle and Murray Dubin’s Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America (Temple University Press 2010). (Visit the book’s webpage here.)

This article from Pennsylvania History provides a lot of information about Catto. This page from the Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries provides photographs and documents.

For more information, check out Henry Griffin’s The Trial of Frank Kelly, for The Assassination and Murder of Octavius V. Catto, On October 10, 1871, part of Gale’s The Making of Modern Law collection.

To see the New York Times release of election results, click here.

To see photographs from the 2007 dedication of a headstone at Catto’s burial site, click here.

At the time of Catto’s murder, the Fifteenth Amendment had just given African Americans the right to vote. Only a few years later, legislation would be put into effect to disfranchise African Americans. For more on disfranchisement, click here, or check out Michael Perman’s Struggle for Mastery: Disfranchisement in the South, 1888-1908 (UNC Press 2001).

On This Day: The Civil Rights Act of 1957

On September 9, 1957—55 years ago today—President Eisenhower signed into law the first piece of federal civil rights legislation since the 19th century era of Reconstruction.

It had been a long time coming. Civil rights activists had long been struggling for equality in every element of life from schooling to voting rights. Six months earlier, civil rights leaders had organized a Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom to urge the federal government to fulfill promises laid out in the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Now, with discrimination and segregation issues at the forefront of the American discourse, President Eisenhower took a stand.

Originally proposed by Attorney General Herbert Brownell, the Civil Rights Act of 1957 was designed to protect voting rights, but also established the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department and the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. Federal prosecutors were also empowered to use court injunctions against those who attempted to interfere with citizens’ voting rights.

In an effort to block the legislation, South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond—a man famous for his discriminatory stands against integration and equality—set a record for the longest one-person filibuster in American history. Ultimately, though, the bill passed, and went to the President for approval.

It was a quiet signing, lacking the fanfare of other law enactments—after all, Americans were already tense as they watched a hotly contested integration process in Southern schools. (Two weeks later, President Eisenhower would send federal troops to protect African American students during the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.)

The Act was only the first in a series of laws designed to protect Americans’ civil rights, and indeed was by itself not very effective in increasing equality and providing African Americans with voting rights. However, it represented a significant step toward equality, paving the way for stronger legislation to come, including the Civil Rights Act of 1960, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

To view documents related to the Act, check out this page from the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum.

To read the full text of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, check out this page from Teaching American History, a project of the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University.

For archival resources, check out this page from the Civil Rights Digital Library.

For a comprehensive list of civil rights legislation, click here. To learn more about federal civil rights legislation, check out Robert Mann’s When Freedom Would Triumph: The Civil Rights Struggle in Congress, 1954-1968 (Louisiana State University Press 2007).

By the time the law was enacted, it had been 82 years since the last piece of federal civil rights legislation, the Civil Rights Act of 1875. Check out this blog post about the 1875 legislation.

To learn more, check out The 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and Its Continuing Importance (BiblioGov).

For more on President Eisenhower and the struggle for equality, check out David Nichols’ A Matter of Justice: Eisenhower and the Beginning of the Civil Rights Revolution (Simon & Schuster 2008).

To learn about President Eisenhower’s relation with the media and the American public, check out Craig Allen’s Eisenhower and the Mass Media: Peace, Prosperity, and Prime-time TV (UNC Press 1993), available through UNC Press’s Enduring Editions Collection.

Remembering Fannie Lou Hamer and Voter Registration

On August 31, 1962—50 years ago today—Fannie Lou Hamer led seventeen people to a courthouse in Indianola, Mississippi, to attempt to register to vote. It was the beginning of a long struggle.

For decades, white supremacists had blocked African American voter registration by enacting various discriminatory rules and regulations—particularly unreasonable tests that most applicants would inevitably fail. Despite voter registration drives, only a tiny segment of the African American population was registered.

When Hamer and the others arrived at the courthouse on August 31 to register, they were met by men with rifles determined to prevent their registration. Ultimately, not one member of the group was able to register that day. And Hamer lost her job because her employer objected to her attempted registration.

Unwilling to give up, Hamer attended a SNCC leadership training conference, and then continued her registration attempts until officials finally allowed her to register in December 1962. But Hamer wasn’t just seeking registration for herself; she wanted true voting equality for all.

Hostility and violence always loomed over fights for civil rights. In June 1963, on her way back from a SCLC citizenship training program, Hamer was arrested after being refused service in a restaurant. She and her 15-year-old traveling companion were beaten by two other African American prisoners under orders from the police. Although five were charged in the beating, an all-white jury later acquitted the police.

Undeterred, Hamer continued the struggle, walking in James Meredith’s march against fear and in 1968 sitting as a delegate at the Democratic Party’s nominating convention. Her later activism included not only voting rights but also anti-poverty campaigns and desegregation protests.

A testament to her influence and contributions, Hamer’s funeral was attended by hundreds of people, including Andrew Young, who gave the eulogy. A member of the National Women’s Hall of Fame, she was also honored as the namesake of several institutions, including parks and educational facilities.

Hamer, like so many other civil rights activists and ordinary citizens, risked hostility and violence to make major contributions to the civil rights movement. In 1964, poll taxes—another common disfranchisement tool—were banned through the passage of the 24th Amendment; in 1965, the Voting Rights Act outlawed the disfranchisement practices that kept Hamer and many other African Americans from registering to vote.

To learn more about voting rights, take a look at this lengthy contextual report published by the National Park Service.

To learn more about Hamer, check out this page from Mississippi History Now, an online publication of the Mississippi Historical Society, and this page from Howard University. The Encyclopedia Britannica article can be found here.

For more on Hamer’s life and work, check out Kay Mills’ This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer (University Press of Kentucky 1993) and Chana Kai Lee’s For Freedom’s Sake: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer (University Press of Illinois 2000). Hamer herself wrote an autobiography in 1967: To Praise Our Bridges: An Autobiography.

For a study of the opposing activities of Fannie Lou Hamer and segregationist politician James Eastland, check out Chris Myers Asch’s The Senator and the Sharecropper: The Freedom Struggles of James O. Eastland and Fannie Lou Hamer (UNC Press 2011).

To listen to Hamer’s speech at the Democratic National Convention, in which she recalls the August 31 registration effort and the events which followed, click here. To read the text, and to access a summary, check out this page from American Public Media.

To learn more about the freedom struggle in Sunflower County—the location of the August 31 voter registration attempt—check out J. Todd Moye’s Let the People Decide: Black Freedom and White Resistance Movements in Sunflower County, Mississippi, 1945-1986 (UNC Press 2004).

To learn about voting rights in Mississippi, check out Frank Parker’s Black Votes Count: Political Empowerment in Mississippi after 1965 (UNC Press 1990).

Disfranchisement began long before Hamer was born. To learn more about the systematic exclusion of African Americans from elections, check out Michael Perman’s Struggle for Mastery: Disfranchisement in the South, 1888-1908 (UNC Press 2001).

The 19th Amendment and Women’s Right to Vote

On August 18, 1920—92 years ago today—the 19th Amendment was ratified, granting women the right to vote.

It had been a long time coming. Suffragists had marched, lectured, and lobbied since the nineteenth century. The Amendment was first introduced in Congress in 1878, 42 years before it was ratified. Suffragists—who faced hostility, threats, and even imprisonment—were successful in obtaining the vote in several states by the early 1900s, in 1917 New York granted women the right to vote, and in 1918 President Wilson came out in support of women’s suffrage.

Congress passed the amendment in the summer of 1919, and it became law on August 18, 1920, after Tennessee’s ratification gave it the necessary three-fourths majority. Finally, the Constitution began to reflect the spirit of equality and democracy on which the country had been built, stating that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

On August 26, 8 days after its ratification, the Amendment was certified by Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby.

To learn more, check out this page from the Our Documents initiative. This page from the National Archives also offers a summary, as well as several pictures.

Tennessee ratified the Amendment only after Representative Harry Burn—who had originally voted against it—cast the deciding vote; to learn more, check out this article from the Cleveland Daily Banner. Burns’ mother wrote him a letter the day before, encouraging him to vote for the Amendment. To see a digitized copy of that letter, check out this page from the Knox County Public Library.

This page from the Tennessee State Library and Archives provides a detailed summary of the fight for women’s rights.

To learn more, check out Eleanor Clift’s Founding Sisters and the Nineteenth Amendment (Wiley 2003). Jean Baker’s Sisters: The Lives of America’s Suffragists (Hill and Wang 2006) and Votes for Women: The Struggle for Suffrage Revisited (Oxford University Press 2002) detail the long battle for voting rights.

In the children’s book With Courage and Cloth: Winning the Fight for a Woman’s Right to Vote (National Geographic, 2004), Ann Bausum chronicles the women’s suffrage movement.

To learn about the suffrage movement in the South, check out Elna Green’s Southern Strategies: Southern Women and the Suffrage Question (UNC Press 1997).

Women’s suffrage and the African American civil rights movement often went hand-in-hand. To learn more, check out Glenda Gilmore’s Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896-1920 (UNC Press 1996).

To learn about the effects of the 19th Amendment, check out Lorraine Gates Schuyler’s The Weight of Their Votes: Southern Women and political Leverage in the 1920s (UNC Press 2006).

To learn about the women who launched the suffrage movement in New York in the 1840s, check out Lori Ginzberg’s Untidy Origins: A Story of Woman’s Rights in Antebellum New York (UNC Press 2005).

On This Day: The Niagara Movement

On July 11, 1905—107 years ago today—29 individuals led by W.E.B. Du Bois met at Niagara Falls in Canada to form the Niagara Movement, a direct-action civil rights organization designed to provide a more radical alternative to the more conciliatory responses to oppression espoused by the Tuskegee Institute’s Booker T. Washington.

The group renounced Washington’s accommodation policies, which stressed self-sufficiency and patience rather than integration or political advancement. Instead, the Movement leaders demanded voting rights, an end to segregation, and the establishment of equal rights for African Americans. The group’s manifesto, read by Du Bois, stated, in part:

We claim for ourselves every single right that belongs to a freeborn American, political, civil and social; and until we get these rights we will never cease to protest and assail the ears of America. The battle we wage is not for ourselves alone, but for all true Americans. It is a fight for ideals, lest this, our common fatherland, false to its founding, become in truth the land of the thief and the home of the slave—a byword and hissing among the nations for its sounding pretensions and pitiful accomplishment.

Thirteen months later, the Movement’s first public meeting in America was held on the Storer College campus in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. Today, a historical marker commemorates the meeting.

Over the next six years, the organization established thirty branches and continued to fight for civil rights, while suffering from organizational weakness and low funding. It disbanded in 1911, but many members (including Du Bois himself) continued civil rights work through the newly formed NAACP.

To learn more, check out this story from PBS. The University of Massachusetts’ Du Bois Central provides a good summary as well. The collection also contains many related documents.

To read the Encyclopedia Britannica article, click here. To read an article from the West Virginia Encyclopedia, click here.

To read the group’s Declaration of Principles, click here.

To view a photograph of the movement’s founders, click here.

To learn more about the Niagara Movement, check out Angela Jones’ African American Civil Rights: Early Activism and the Niagara Movement (Praeger, 2011).

To learn more about W.E.B. Du Bois, check out David Levering Lewis’ W.E.B. Du Bois: A Biography (Henry Holt, 1993). Numerous volumes also contain Du Bois’ writing. (See, for example, the Library of America’s Du Bois.) For more speeches available online, check out the Teaching American History collection.

To learn more about Du Bois and Washington’s conflicting views, check out Jacqueline Moore’s Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, and the Struggle for Racial Uplift (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003).

Remembering Guinn v. United States

On June 21, 1915—97 years ago today—in the landmark Guinn v. United States, the Supreme Court struck down Oklahoma’s grandfather clause, marking an important step in the fight for suffrage for all citizens, regardless of race.

The clause, part of the Voter Registration Act of 1910, required voters to pass a literacy test; however, it exempted citizens who were entitled to vote on January 1, 1866 (before African Americans gained suffrage through the Fifteenth Amendment), and those whose ancestors (“grandfathers”) were entitled to vote at that time.

Unsurprisingly, given the racial discrimination prevalent at the time, local voter registration officials applied the law in different ways. Often, they imposed unreasonable literacy tests on African American applicants—or refused to administer the test at all.

Finally, in 1915, the federal government prosecuted voter registration officials for denying African American citizens of Oklahoma the right to vote, as a violation of the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Also in question was a piece of Maryland’s constitution, which carried similar restrictions.

In a unanimous ruling (one justice sat out), the Supreme Court struck down the restrictions as unconstitutional. The decision read, in part:

. . . how can there be room for any serious dispute concerning the repugnancy of the standard based upon January 1, 1866 (a date which preceded the adoption of the Fifteenth Amendment), if the suffrage provision fixing that standard is susceptible of the significance with which the Government attributes to it? Indeed, there seems no escape from the conclusion that to hold that there was even possibility for dispute on the subject would be but to declare that the Fifteenth Amendment not only had not the self-executing power which it has been recognized to have from the beginning, but that its previous provisions were wholly inoperative, because susceptible of being rendered inapplicable by more forms of expression embodying no exercise of judgment and resting upon no discernible reason other than the purpose to disregard the prohibitions of the Amendment by creating a standard of voting which on its face was, in substance, but a revitalization of conditions which, when they prevailed in the past, had been destroyed by the self-operative force of the Amendment.

Although the ruling had little short-term effect (Oklahoma quickly passed new voter registration restrictions), it led to the dismantling of similar restrictions in other southern states, such as Alabama, North Carolina, Louisiana, Virginia, and Georgia. The battle for suffrage continued for many more decades, but the ruling marked an important step toward the eventual banning of voting restrictions seen in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

To read the full text of the Supreme Court decision, click here.

For more information, click here, and check out this entry from the Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History & Culture.

For more on disfranchisement, click here, or check out Michael Perman’s Struggle for Mastery: Disfranchisement in the South, 1888-1908 (UNC Press, 2001).

For more on suffrage, check out J. Morgan Kousser’s Colorblind Injustice: Minority Voting Rights and the Undoing of the Second Reconstruction (UNC Press, 1999) and Charles S. Bullock III and Ronald Keith Gaddie’s The Triumph of Voting Rights in the South (University of Oklahoma Press, 2009).

James Meredith and the March Against Fear

On June 6, 1966—46 years ago today—James Meredith was shot and wounded on the second day of his 220-mile March Against Fear.

Meredith, best known for integrating the University of Mississippi four years earlier,  chose to march from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi, to dispel fears of life in Mississippi and to encourage other African Americans to register to vote.  Although he planned the journey as a solitary march, a few companions joined him, as did three police cars.

That was not enough to protect him, though. Aubrey Norvell shot Meredith, who was taken to the hospital for surgery. Suddenly, in the face of violence, a march that had received little attention from larger civil rights organizations garnered interest. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., CORE’s Floyd McKissick, and SNCC’s Stokely Carmichael, after visiting Meredith at the hospital, elected to continue the march in his absence. It would be 20 days before Meredith was able to rejoin the march, which ended Sunday, June 26, 21 days after Meredith began the journey.

An estimated 16,000 African Americans and several hundred whites showed up in Jackson that day to see Meredith complete the journey. In his speech, Meredith called for the elimination of “the fear that grips the Negro in America to his very bones, not only in Mississippi, but in every section of this country, because every inch of the country is controlled by the system of white supremacy.” (For more about this speech, click here.)

Aubrey Norvell pled guilty to the shooting, and was sentenced to five years in prison (three of which were suspended). He was released from Parchman Penitentiary in June 1968.

A Duke University student last month fashioned his own march against North Carolina’s Amendment One; he compared the protest with Meredith’s March Against Fear.

For more information about the March Against Fear, click here.

To read news articles published during the march, click here, here, and here.

To watch a video clip of Meredith’s speech on June 26, click here.

To learn more about James Meredith, click here, or check out Charles W. Eagles’ The Price of Defiance: James Meredith and the Integration of Ole Miss (UNC Press, 2009).

Remembering the Force Acts

On May 31, 1870—142 years ago today—Congress passed the first of four Acts designed to protect the constitutional rights provided for under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.

The Force Act of 1870 designated criminal penalties to those who interfered with the right to vote, whether through intimidation, threats, or other measures. The Act read, in part:

[I]f any person, by force, bribery, threats, intimidation, or other unlawful means, shall hinder, delay, prevent, or obstruct, or shall combine and confederate with others to hinder, delay, prevent, or obstruct, any citizen from doing any act required to be done to qualify him to vote or from voting at any election as aforesaid, such person shall for every such offence forfeit and pay the sum of five hundred dollars to the person aggrieved thereby, to be recovered by an action on the state, with full costs, and such allowance for counsel fees as the court shall deem just, and shall also for ever such offence be guilty of a misdemeanor, and shall, on conviction thereof, be fined not less than five hundred dollars, or be imprisoned not less than one more and not more than one year, or both, at the discretion of the court.

Enacted only five years after the Civil War, the legislation represented an important acknowledgement of the rights and protections due to all citizens, regardless of color. Over the next few years, three more acts would follow. This legislation allowed many thousands of freedmen to register to vote and to be elected to governmental offices.

African Americans soon saw these rights taken away, as Reconstruction gave way to a long period of disfranchisement, characterized by poll taxes, literacy tests, and other such discriminatory measures. Although it would be years before African Americans would once again enjoy protection of their voting rights (see the 24th Amendment and the 1965 Voting Rights Act), the Force Acts foreshadowed advancements to come.

To read excerpts from the 1870 and 1871 Force Acts, click here.

For the Encyclopedia Britannica’s summary, click here.

For more about voting rights, click here.

For a comprehensive list of civil rights legislation, click here.

For a chronological view of Reconstruction-era policies, click here.

To learn about voting rights in ensuing decades, check out J. Morgan Kousser’s Colorblind Injustice: Minority Voting Rights and the Undoing of the Second Reconstruction (UNC Press, 1999) and Chandler Davidson and Bernard Grofman’s Quiet Revolution in the South: The Impact of the Voting Rights Act, 1965-1990 (Princeton University Press, 1994).

To learn about disfranchisement, check out Michael Perman’s Struggle for Mastery: Disfranchisement in the South, 1888-1908 (UNC Press, 2001).

On This Day: The Civil Rights Act of 1960

On May 6, 1960—52 year ago today—President Eisenhower signed the Civil Rights Act of 1960, in an effort to increase protection for African Americans at the polls.

Although aimed primarily at voting rights, the Act—the second piece of federal civil rights legislation enacted in the twentieth century—also expanded the enforcement powers of the 1957 Civil Rights Act through its inclusion of provisions against bombings and local interference with federal court orders, among other issues.

The legislation, which sparked more than two months of debate in the House and Senate, faced strong opposition from conservative Southerners. In fact, the bill sparked the longest filibuster in history, which, led by 18 senators, lasted more than 125 hours.

Like the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the Civil Rights Act of 1960 was not, on its own, very effective in increasing equality and providing African Americans with voting rights. However, it represented a significant step toward equality, paving the way for stronger legislation to come, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

To read the full text of the Act, click here.

For more information, check out this article from the Westlaw Insider.

Click here to see the event listed on President Eisenhower’s daily schedule.

For a comprehensive list of civil rights legislation, click here.

Remembering Smith v. Allwright

On April 3, 1944—68 years ago today—the Supreme Court in Smith v. Allwright chipped away at race-based voter discrimination, ruling that a state cannot “permit a private organization to practice racial discrimination in elections.”

The case was brought in response to a resolution by the Democratic Party of Texas (described as a “voluntary association” by the Texas Supreme Court)—a policy which allowed only whites to participate in Democratic primary elections. Lonnie Smith, a 39-year-old African American man, was denied the right to vote in the 1940 Texas Democratic primary, and thus began his four-year legal struggle.

Famed NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall—who four years earlier in Chambers v. Florida had won his first of 29 Supreme Court victories—argued that Texas’s Democratic Party’s policy violated the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, and as such denied African Americans their full citizenship rights.

Overturning a nine-year-old decision from Grovey v. Townsend, the Supreme Court in Smith v. Allwright ruled:

The United States is a constitutional democracy. Its organic law grants to all citizens a right to participate in the choice of elected officials without restriction by any state because of race. This grant to the people of the opportunity for choice is not to be nullified by a state through casting its electoral process in a form which permits a private organization to practice racial discrimination in the election. Constitutional rights would be of little value if they could be thus indirectly denied.

Not only did this case lead to an immediate increase in African American voter registration, it also represented a milestone in the African American struggle for equality and full citizenship and heralded civil rights victories that would come in the following decades.

For more information, check out the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s summary of the case.

For the full text of the decision, click here.

For background information, check out this essay from the University of Texas.

Charles Zelden published a book about the trial with the University of Kansas Press back in 2004: The Battle for the Black Ballot: Smith v. Allwright and the Defeat of the Texas All-White Primary (search for it here).