By 21 years old, Frederick Douglass declared himself free, sailed to New Bedford, Massechuttsets, paid the $1.50 poll tax and voted for the first time. He voted again the following year, 1841. Douglass served in Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet and joined with women suffragettes demanding the right to vote.
Like so many born into slavery, Douglass did not know his birthday. He chose Feb. 14 as his birthday. Over 100 years after his birthday, the League of Women Voters became a national organization. The right to vote drove both.
The right to vote wasn’t a right for all. From 1865 to 1868, Reconstruction allowed Black men to work, vote, run for office and enjoy the rights of white men. The white supremacy groups arose. Thousands were killed or intimated for trying to vote in spite of the 15th Amendment (1870), which nationalized Black men’s right to vote. States used many creative, even violent methods to restrict access to the polls. Poll taxes, literacy tests and grandfather clauses shut Black men out. In 1868, Louisiana white Democrats killed over a 1,000 Black men and white Republicans. 1874, white people drove away a thousand Black Alabama men trying to vote. The white residents of Barbour County circulated rumors of an “invasion,” according to the Encyclopedia of Alabama. They rioted, killing seven men, injuring 70, and were just one of many groups in multiple states who scared off Black voters.
Meanwhile in some states, a few women could vote. They had to pass mental competency, age and residency tests. The 19th Amendment, ratified in 1920, came with its own troubled existence. Sojourner Truth separated herself from the women suffragettes when Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony denounced the right of Black men to vote before women had the right. When Southern Senator Ellison Smith resisted the 19th Amendment because it would “give the other half of the Negro race” the right to vote, suffragette Carrie Chapman Catt pointed out that white supremacy could be restored. She argued tragically that white women were under Black men at the moment, and the right to vote would make them equals.
When the 19th Amendment passed in 1920, the right to vote remained barred for many. Black women in Savannah, Georgia were turned away en masse that year because the state said they had to register a full six months before election. In 1924, many Native American should have been able to vote, having been recognized as citizens finally. Many states prevented their votes by labeling them “wards of the state.” Because of the Alien Exclusion Act of 1900, Asian-Americans could not naturalize. Finally in 1943, they were legally able to vote.
Until 1965, localities limited voting with every creative tactic they could muster. In 1961, Junius Edward published “Liars Don’t Qualify” to show how “good ol’ boys” frustrated Black veterans. Four years later the Voting Rights Act outlawed sneaky tactics. They obstructed Black World War II veterans, such as Maceo Snipes and Medgar Evers. Snipes was lynched in Taylor County, Georgia, in 1946. Evers was murdered in his home in 1963.
From 1965 to the present, the ability to vote freely remains fickle. It’s fragility returned in 2013 when Congress and the Supreme Court invalidated key portions. A process that began in Indiana in 2006 has begun to steamroll the ability to vote freely and fairly.
For this reason, the League of Women Voters, among others, supports the For the People Act (HR 1, S.1) which passed in 2019 in the House by a significant bipartisan margin. It’s one of the most transformative laws to be on the docket this year.
The For the People Act reduces barriers to voting, controls gerrymandering and changes campaign financing. It allows for automatic voter registration when citizens obtain a driver’s license, expands early voting, allows for voting by mail for any reason, improves paper balloting and other election security. It normalizes provisional ballot requirements across the nation. In other words, it improves registration and voting access for everyone. It requires independent commissions in all 50 states for redistricting. Currently only 13 states rely on such commissions exclusively for redistricting. 8 other states use them for help in the process. Finally, H.R. 1/S.1 multiples the power of small donors so that big money is not the loudest voice clamoring for political attention.
A great way to honor the birthdays of Douglass and the League is to let our Congress people know we want them to pass the For the People Act into law.
The League of Women Voters, a non-partisan, multi-issue organization encourages informed and active participation in government, works to increase public understanding of major policy issues and influences public policy through education and advocacy. All men and women are invited to join the LWV where hands-on work to safeguard democracy leads to civic improvement. For information, visit the website www.lwvmontcoin.org or the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County, IN Facebook page.