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Excerpts from presentation by Leonard Zeskind to the “Annual Civil Rights Town Hall Meeting” held by the Kansas City, Missouri branch of the NAACP on January 28, 2012.


First I need to provide a bit of history on voting rights.

The first guarantee of voting rights was the 15th amendment, ratified after the Civil War in 1870. It said that “The rights 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 race, color, or previous condition of servitude. Hear that: by any state. The Fifteenth Amendment was an historic achievement. Dr. W.E.B. Dubois wrote that the Freedmen’s Bureau, which had existed from 1865 to 1871, that “the Freedmen’s Bureau died, and its child was the Fifteenth Amendment.”

It is also important to know that white men were not always able to vote directly for our United States senators. That came in 1913, with the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment. You should know that Cong. Ron Paul, Gov. Rick Perry and a whole host of Tea Partiers want to rescind the 17th amendment and the direct election of Senators. They want to put selection of the senators back in the hands of the state legislatures. They want to do that in the name of “States rights,” one of the more seemingly eternal ghosts of the Confederacy.

Now women did not secure the constitutional right to vote until the 19th amendment, which was ratified in 1920. Prior to passage of the 19th amendment, in some states—most notably those on the so-called western frontier—some women in some locales had the right to vote. But they did not have that right everywhere, or in federal elections until the 19th Amendment. And while it supposedly guaranteeing all women the right to vote, in practice it meant that most white women and some people of color had the right to vote.

Native American Indians were finally guaranteed citizenship in 1924, and in some states were able to vote. But restrictions were maintained, the longest in New Mexico, which had the largest Indian population. Finally, in 1952, after World War II, restrictions fell in New Mexico.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 provided the enforcement teeth to protect the Fifteenth Amendment’s right to vote, provisions that had been missing during the century before that. Poll taxes, property owner restrictions, and English literacy barriers fell one by one to state legislation and a series Supreme Court decisions in the 1950s and 1960s. And these court decisions often relied on the “equal protection” provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment to insure the expansion and protection of the Fifteenth Amendment. The last property restriction to voting was removed in 1969, in a case originating in New York.

When these people wear colonial-era hats and declare they want to return to government according to the original constitution, you need to remind them the original constitution did not guarantee voting rights for all citizens. Voting is a badge of adult citizenship. Abridging that right, interfering with that right, is a sign of non-citizenship or second-class citizenship. I have recited this little bit of history, so that we may be reminded that voting rights are tenuous and fragile. We have fought to win, and we must fight to hold on to. And we have seen enough of those bad old days that we do not want to go back.

Attacks on voting rights in the most recent past are not something new. When the Voting Rights was re-authorized by Congress for the 5th time in 2006, legislative hearings were held, and a significant number of violations were recorded. Now prior to the November 2010 elections things had not yet deteriorated to the point they are at today. There were two states—Indiana and Georgia—that had passed voter ID laws that passed constitutional muster. Missouri had passed a Voter ID law in 2006, but it was found to violate the Missouri state constitution.

The ideas and the political power to implement these Voter ID laws originated in the anti-immigrant movement. There are a constellation of organizations, D.C.-based think tanks, Minutemen border vigilantes, and grass roots coalitions that tell people they are worried about so-called “illegal immigration.” For most of them, however, their real worry is brown-skinned Spanish speaking people. And I have written extensively about that in the past. But please understand these are not just white-robbed Klansmen I am talking about. They have had real power in Congress and state legislatures around the county.

And the one man who has done the most writing of these anti-immigrant laws is now sitting in Topeka as the Secretary of State for Kansas; Kris Kobach. Even while supposedly representing the people of Kansas, he has kept a second job being “of counsel” to the Immigration Law Institute. Now the Immigration Law Institute is part of the Federation for American Immigration Reform—one of the main anti-immigration organizations. And the founder of the Federation for American Immigration Reform is John Tanton who once said:“I’ve come to the point of view that for European-American Society and culture to persist requires a European-American majority, and a clear one at that.” There are many such ideas animating the anti-immigrant movement, and its spokesmen such as Pat Buchanan. Often with the clear statement that they believe the United States is now and always was a “European-American” society and nation.

You and I know that the United States of America is not now and never was such a European-American society. But we also know that the attempt to deny voting rights and other basic rights to African Americans and people of color is now and always has been a part of this society.

This situation got worse after the 2010 elections, and there are two facts we should keep in mind.

Exit polls of voters in the 2010 elections showed that 40% of those who voted considered themselves supporters of the Tea Parties, even at a point when Tea Party support was measured at around 20% of the adult population. So Tea Partiers voted, and many others did not. As a result we got what the Tea Partiers wanted.

That includes a full-scale assault on the rights of labor unions; an attack on the social welfare safety net, precisely at a time when we needed it most; and demagogic attacks on immigrants. And it also includes the beginning of an assault on voting rights. One way is thru voter ID laws.[1]

Now I think it is helpful to discuss this current attack on voting rights in the context of another period in American history when voting rights were gained and then lost: Reconstruction and the period after Reconstruction. Now I cannot, by any measure, give a full and coherent description of Reconstruction. Suffice it to say for now that it was the period after the Civil War that gave birth to a new freedom in the United States. It lasted, roughly speaking from 1865 through 1877.

It was the period in which Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were passed. Freedmen and women could make contracts, own their own land, and enjoy some measure of equality before the law. Newly freed black men became congressmen, governors and senators. The first public schools in the South were created then. Property rights paid homage to human rights. In western Missouri, in the election of 1870, 20,000 freedmen voted for the first time.

From the beginning these new rights were challenged. Beginning in 1868, just three years after the Civil War had ended, the Ku Klux Klan, the White League, the Knights of the White Camelia began a terror campaign meant to curtail and end these new rights. Night-riding, murders and mayhem were only curtailed by the presence of Union troops in the South and the Loyal Leagues—often composed in the main of Freedmen—who tried to maintain order. Black voters were attacked before they got to the polls, while they were at the polls and after they voted. In one of the most infamous massacres, in Colfax, Louisiana, almost three hundred were murder in a single conflagration with white mobs.

But still the Freedmen voted, their families grew crops and owned property. A few, like Ida B. Wells, became reporters and chroniclers of their age, and all the terrors that went along with it.

One Southern white newspaper declared in 1975: the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments quote, “may stand forever, but we intend to make them dead letters in the statute book.”

And after the election of 1876, that is exactly what happened.

It is important to note that Reconstruction did not end with a bang, but a whimper. With the Hayes-Tilden compromise, that made Rutherford B. Hayes president and pulled Union troops out of the states of the former Confederacy. Thus removing the armed protection of the Freedmen’s rights—including the right to vote.

Over the next 20 years, these rights were slowly eroded on by one. So called black codes reduced the Freedmen to virtual peonage. There were still a few black men elected to office here and there, but that soon disappeared also. The structures that became 20th century Jim Crow segregation were put in place. In the words of W.E.B. DuBois: “the slave went free, stood a brief moment in the sun, then moved back again toward slavery.”

When Homer Plessy tried to ride in the so-called white car on the train in Louisiana, trying to test the segregation practiced at that point, his case became Plessy v. Ferguson decided in the Supreme Court in 1896. Separate became immensely unequal.

The Fourteenth Amendment and thus the Fifteen Amendment did, in fact, become dead letters. And a whole new wave of white mob violence and lynching ensued in the 20th century. Tulsa, St. Louis, and dozens of other towns and cities. Let me be clear about one thing. This white mob violence was massive and included white participants from every strata of society. And the lynching was done by white mobs that were drawn from every level of society, and the participants would stand around afterwards and get their pictures taken with self-satisfied glee.

They went unpunished because both the Fourteenth Amendment had been eroded by the Supreme Court, and voting and the Fifteenth Amendment had become a dead letter. It took the determination of the NAACP and the genius of Thurgood Marshall to bring back the Fourteenth Amendment with the Brown decision in 1954.

It took the bravery of the freedom movement in the 1950s and 1960s and a mass movement to win the Voting Rights Act in 1965. And we are not going to let the Tea Parties, the anti-immigrant bigots or a bunch of their legislators to turn us around. We are here today to ensure that. We will be here all year to fight for that. And we will be here tomorrow, and tomorrow and the day after that to make sure that voting rights are not taken away.



1. In the next section of my talk, I used data from two reports: Defending Democracy: Confronting Modern Barriers to Voting Rights in America, issued by the NAACP and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc.; and Voting Law Changes in 2012, issued by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. I would urge readers to reference these two reports, after—of course—finishing this presentation here.

Leonard Zeskind

Author Leonard Zeskind

is founder of IREHR. For almost four decades, he has been a leading authority on white nationalist political and social movements. He is the author of Blood and Politics: The History of White Nationalism from the Margins to the Mainstream, published by Farrar Straus & Giroux in May 2009. [more..]

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