At his Escambia County polling site on June 3, 93-year-old African-American Willie Mims was disenfranchised by Alabama’s strict new voter ID law. Mims was turned away because he did not have a photo ID.
He explained that he no longer drives, so his license had expired. He was not offered a chance to cast a provisional ballot, as the law requires.
Mims has voted as far back as the records go. This primary was the first Alabama election under the new law. It is estimated that 25 percent of Blacks lack the required ID to vote.
How can this happen almost 150 years after the end of the U.S. Civil War?
Just four years after the end of chattel slavery, the 15th Amendment to the Constitution prohibited states from denying male citizens the right to vote based on “race, color or previous condition of servitude.”
But the rich landowners who had profited off slavery still owned most of the land. Once the Union Army was withdrawn from the South in the “Great Compromise” of 1877, most Southern Black people were soon re-subjugated under the sharecropping system.
In 1896 Louisiana passed “grandfather clauses” to exclude former slaves and their descendants from voting, resulting in a 45 percent drop in Black registered voters.
In the following decades various discriminatory practices were used to disenfranchise African Americans, particularly in the South. Latinos/as faced similar voting barriers in Texas and other parts of the Southwest, as did Native and Asian-American voters in the West.
Civil Rights and voting rights
During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, voting-rights activists and nonviolent protesters in the South were subjected to violence in the form of night sticks, tear gas, severe beatings, jailings, fire hoses and attack dogs. Their homes, churches and schools were bombed; they suffered harassment, economic reprisals and also murder. Literacy tests, poll taxes and disenfranchisement of ex-inmates were all aimed at preventing Blacks from registering and voting.
African Americans attempting to vote were often told they had the wrong date, time or polling place; had filled out the application incorrectly; or possessed insufficient literacy skills. Some were told to recite the entire Constitution. Centuries of enslavement, oppression and poverty had left a high rate of illiteracy. But even Blacks with college degrees were turned away from the polls.
On March 7, 1965, more than 500 peaceful marchers attempted to march from Selma, Ala., to the state capitol in Montgomery to demand voting rights. They were brutally attacked at the Edmund Pettus Bridge by state troopers, local police and white mobs.
The impact of this broad-based Civil Rights Movement forced President Lyndon Johnson to sign the Voting Rights Act on Aug. 6, 1965. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil and human rights leaders were present at the ceremony.
The Voting Rights Act followed language similar to the 15th Amendment and prohibited the denial or abridgment of the right to vote on the basis of race or color. It also expanded voting rights for non-English-speaking citizens.
Enforcement of the act was weak. Many Southern states often ignored it in areas where the Black population was high.
State and local governments immediately challenged it in the courts. Tactics like gerrymandering to dilute minority voting strength, discriminatory annexations and inaccessible locations of polling places were employed to prevent newly registered Blacks from voting.
But by 1990, a quarter century after passage of the Voting Rights Act, the number of Black state legislators and members of Congress had risen from 2 to 160, according to the Congress for Racial Equality.
This was particularly true in Mississippi. African-American voter turnout there increased from 6 percent in 1964 to 59 percent just five years later. According to the U.S. National Archives & Records Administration, more than 50 percent of African Americans in nine out of the 13 Southern states were registered to vote in the first year of the act.
What was the rich, white power structure afraid of? That Black people would flock to the polls and elect leaders from the movement.
That’s what happened last June, when Chokwe Lumumba, a leader of the Republic of New Afrika and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, was elected mayor of Jackson, Miss. He had been outspent five to one in the primaries, but was so enormously popular among Black voters and other progressives that he won hands down. His program was centered on alleviating poverty and engaging Black youth in the struggle for a better life. Tragically, he died after less than a year in office.
String of court decisions gut voting act
Because of systematic racist resistance, the voting act had been extended, renewed and strengthened in 1970, 1975 and 1982.
However, beginning in 1980 — the year Ronald Reagan was elected — the courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, began whittling down the Voting Rights Act, particularly the provision on federal oversight.
In 2006 and again in 2009 the U.S. Supreme Court allowed areas to “bail out” from accepting federal voting examiners.
Then last June the court ruled that the Voting Rights Act’s formula to determine which states and political subdivisions had to get preclearance from the Justice Department before changing their voting laws was unconstitutional. That gutted the act.
The result was new voter ID laws, like the one in Alabama, that claim to combat voter fraud — a nearly nonexistent problem — but are really intended to once again disenfranchise oppressed peoples and thus manipulate the elections.
Last June, Texas enacted a new, strict voter ID law. Those lacking photo ID can apply for an election identification certificate, but not without a birth certificate or other proof of citizenship. This past May, the new law prevented a 92-year-old white woman, Ruby Barber, from voting for lack of a photo ID or birth certificate.
Barber tried unsuccessfully to obtain a so-called “free” photo ID from the Texas Department of Public Safety. Her Medicare and Social Security cards did not suffice. Her driver’s license expired years ago, her marriage certificate was destroyed in a fire, and she was unable to locate her birth certificate as she was born at home, delivered by a midwife.
Because of the publicity she’s gotten, Barber will be able to get a state-issued photo ID to vote. Texas verified her birth date in a 1940 U.S. census. But hundreds of thousands of registered voters still do not have the required photo ID needed to vote under the Texas law.