What American suffrage activists can learn from past civil rights movements

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(THE CONVERSATION) With Congress failing to pass new suffrage legislation, it’s worth remembering that throughout U.S. history, new civil rights laws designed to end racial inequalities in American life have been met with stubborn resistance.

Senate Democrats Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona joined Senate Republicans in blocking both the Free Suffrage Act and the John Lewis Advancing Voting Rights Act. These bills would have fought voter suppression by creating a nationwide system of automatic voter registration, and they would also have banned partisan gerrymandering.

The day after the vote, President Joe Biden said he was “deeply disappointed that the US Senate did not stand up for democracy”.


These setbacks in Congress come on the heels of millions of Americans calling for change.

The protests following the death of George Floyd in 2020 were part of a larger effort to address white violence and discrimination in American life.

The historical roots of the country’s contemporary racial injustice were documented in the 1619 Project, a 2019 New York Times venture that re-examined the legacy of slavery in the United States. In 2021, the widespread commemoration of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 also contributed to this moment of racial reckoning.

As a total of 28 states are considering or have passed legislation to limit the teaching of this painful history, I would say now is the time to dig deeper into our nation’s past.

As a scholar of African-American history, I believe revisiting American history can uncover the roots of today’s national challenges – from what children learn in school to how Americans are treated when they drive a car – and help us chart a better path forward.

Legacy of violence and discrimination

The belief in white supremacy that has endured for centuries in America was made clear in the 1852 Supreme Court decision Dred Scott v. Sandford, who determined that black Americans were not US citizens and could not sue in federal court.

After the Civil War, a Republican Congress appeared to make progress for American civil rights with the passage of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery. Congress attempted to ensure equal protection under the law for all Americans with the 14th Amendment. And Congress passed the 15th Amendment, which gave all men the right to vote, regardless of race.

Additionally, Congress passed two civil rights laws in 1866 and 1875. These laws and amendments, passed during the Reconstruction period, were intended to provide all the benefits of citizenship to African Americans, including voting and a equal legal protection.

But Dred Scott’s legacy lived on.

In 1883, the Supreme Court struck down civil rights laws in a series of rulings and cleared the way for public and private entities to deny service and lodging to black Americans. These decisions were the precursor to Plessy v. Ferguson’s 1896 which made “separate but equal” the law of the land, legalizing segregation.

The Plessy decision was not simply about relegating black Americans to water fountains and separate toilets. He struck down equal protection for black Americans under the law, a move that subjected African-American communities to horrific consequences.

The ruling resulted in a major setback for racial equality. Between 1877 and 1945, more than 4,400 black Americans were lynched without trial.

In the summer of 1919, known as the “Red Summer,” black American blood ran through the streets of American cities as black people and their property suffered violent assaults, without any protection of the law.

This white mob violence was a response to African Americans seeking wartime jobs in Northern and Midwestern cities during the Great Migration. It was then that millions of African Americans moved from the rural South to the urban areas of the country, escaping horrific discrimination, lynchings and the terror of the Ku Klux Klan.

During World War II, white and black Americans fought Nazi racism in separate units. But a nascent freedom movement in the country has finally begun to win legal victories in the Supreme Court.

In 1944, the court decision Smith v. Allwright ended the exclusive “white primary” that had kept black Americans from voting throughout the South. And the High Court made segregation in schools illegal in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education of 1954.

Retrenchment and Resistance

Yet the Allwright decision was not enforced, and black Americans still could not vote in the South.

And the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown’s case was met with “massive resistance” from lawmakers, ultimately requiring a second Supreme Court decision – Brown II – and an act of Congress – the the Civil Rights of 1964 – to end legal segregation in the United States.

In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down the core of the Voting Rights Act, allowing nine states with a history of racially-based voting restrictions to change their election laws without prior federal approval.

In 2020, 60 years after the Brown decision, the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, reported that black youth are twice as likely to attend segregated and very poor schools as their white counterparts.

And in July 2021, the court upheld an Arizona law that disqualifies the ballots of those who vote in the wrong precinct – a move that challengers say will make it harder for minority populations to vote.

Home ownership remained a problem. Despite the Fair Housing Act of 1968, black Americans fell victim to systemic predatory mortgage lending in the years leading up to the 2008 financial crisis. Minority homeowners were overcharged for mortgage fees and subjected to long-term financial risks. , such as monthly payments that become more expensive over time.

These practices have created significantly lower levels of home ownership and home equity in Black communities.

So far, no law has created the equality enshrined in the nation’s founding documents.

Indeed, the difficult lesson of our nation’s history is that a deep well of strength and resilience is needed for the long struggle to make fairness and equality under the law a reality in the United States. .

This is an updated version of an article originally published on August 13, 2021.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here: https://theconversation.com/what-americas-voting-rights-activists-can-learn-from-past-movements-for-civil-rights-176192.

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