The history of African Americans is a history rich with political struggle. Whether we study the early slave rebellions, the Civil War, #reconstruction, Post-Reconstruction, the Garvey Movement, the 1960s Civil Rights and Black Power movements, or the rise of Black elected officials up to, and including, the election of Barak Obama, African Americans have engaged in deliberate political action to advance their quality of life within the United States. In 2008, tens of millions of African Americans turned out in historic numbers to propel Barak Obama to the Democratic Party nomination and, ultimately, the Presidency of the United States. The turnout in that election was the culmination of a massive upswing in Black voting which began with the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Barak Obama Election
By the time of Obama’s re-election campaign in 2012, numerous states across the nation had moved to adopt laws which severely restrict voting rights. Many of these laws were targeted at African American voters. At the same time, Republicans in the US Congress, backed by right wing white supporters (many aligned with the TEA Party) initiated a process to obstruct much of Barak Obama’s public policy agenda. The strategy was to undermine his Presidency, deny his legitimacy, and, ultimately roll back his achievements. This white, right-wing reaction did not succeed in denying Obama’s re-election, as US Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell had pledged. However, by the time of the 2016 US Presidential election, this wave of reaction, combined with voter suppression tactics and foreign intelligence sabotage, did succeed in bringing to power the unpredictable and incendiary, Donald Trump. Trump came to power with a promise to roll back all that Barak Obama had accomplished, beginning with a repeal of the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obama Care.
For African American voters, this roll back strategy is dangerously reminiscent of the Post Reconstruction era. It is like Deja Vu, all over again. Between 1864 and 1870, a vigorous debate waged within the US over the question of the African American vote. Following the Civil War, the readmission of Southern states into the union was tied to the enfranchisement of African Americans. The 14th Amendment,which bestowed citizenship on African Americans, also dictated the terms for readmission of Southern states into the Union.
Section 2 of the 14th Amendment overturned the provision in Article 1 of the US Constitution which had limited the counting of ex-slaves for congressional apportionment to three-fifths of a person. The counting of African Americans then added fifteen additional congressional seats to the House of Representatives. The 14th Amendment also overturned the infamous Dred Scott Decision of the US Supreme Court.
The Right of African Americans to Vote
14th and 15th Amendments to US Constitution
Because the reconstruction Acts passed after the Civil War called for Black voting rights only in the South, there was great disparity and controversy within the US. Those Acts did not apply to the North, where 11 out of 21 states did not allow Blacks to vote in 1868. Further, the Border States, where a sizable chunk of the African American population resided, did not allow Blacks to vote either. Congress passed the 15th Amendment in 1869 to rectify the voting rights disparity. However, there was resistance to its ratification. It was then dictated by Congress to the Southern states that the condition for their readmission to the Union would be acceptance of both the 14th and 15th amendments.
African American Political Representation
Following passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments, African American political representation in the South increased dramatically. Between 1870 and 1900, twenty-two African Americans served in the US Congress. And, in 1868, Oscar Dunn, an African American, was elected Lieutenant Governor of Louisiana. In the legislature of South Carolina, Blacks even outnumbered whites by 87 to 40.
Post Reconstruction White Backlash
This history is ripe with protests and a constant struggle for the enforcement of laws passed to enfranchise African Americans. After only a few short years of African American political representation, a vicious, violent backlash began. White supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan gained prominence, and many Whites refused to accept Blacks as their equal. In 1876, after three years of controversy, the US Senate refused to seat PBS Pinchback, an African American who had been Governor of Louisiana for a short while. Also in 1876, a mere six years after ratification of the 15th Amendment, the US Supreme Court ruled that, ‘the right of suffrage is not a necessary attribute of national citizenship’. The next year, the infamous Hayes-Tilden Compromise of 1877 led to the revocation of presidential authority to use federal troops to guarantee fair elections. By 1890, Mississippi had convened the first of the constitutional conventions which would sweep the South and institutionalize the racial cleansing of African Americans from the political arena.
The Last One Left
In an 1899 speech to the US House of Representatives, North Carolina congressman George White said, “our ratio of representation is poor…We have kept quiet while numerically and justly we are entitled to fifty-one members of this House; and I am the only one left. In his farewell speech, White prophetically said, ‘this, Mr. Chairman, is perhaps the Negro’s temporary farewell to the American Congress; but let me say, phoenix-like, he will rise up some day and come again. These parting words are on behalf of an outraged, heart-broken, bruised, and bleeding, but God-fearing people, faithful, industrious, loyal people – rising people, full of potential force.’
After 72 years
The Phoenix Rises
After White’s departure it would take 72 years for African American voters in the South to elect a candidate of their choice to the US Congress. It would take another twenty-two years, two amendments to the Voting Rights Act, vigorous litigation, and federal government intervention before the opportunity to elect a congressional representative became a reality in most of the Southern states. From the time that African Americans were first granted the right to vote up to the present, there has been consistent resistance to African American voting rights, especially in the South.
The Second Reconstruction
The long struggle from Post-Reconstruction to the Civil Rights Movement culminated in the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. That Act was necessary so that African Americans could realize rights which had been granted to them by the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, some 95 years earlier.
The Voting Rights Act Amendments
It would take further amendment of the Voting Rights Act in 1982 for African Americans in the South to elect candidates of their choice to office in significant numbers. The VRA had to be amended by Congress again in 2006, following a wave of litigation challenging the election of these new office holders. In 2015, following the election and re-election of Barak Obama, it is necessary to amend the Voting Rights Act once again because issues long fought over have still not been put to rest. Dive in!
African American Politics in History
African American Struggles
Current Struggles of African Americans
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