This past Saturday, President Barack Obama delivered his final keynote address to the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) at their 46th Annual Legislative Conference, at their annual Phoenix Awards Dinner in Washington D.C.
The president delivered an orator masterpiece to close out his last appearance before the CBC and attendees of the dinner, and it was full of facts, story, humor and a strong challenge to all Americans – especially African Americans.
In essence, President Obama challenged African Americans to show up to the polls in November, register other African Americans to vote and refuse to spit in the face of an entire generation of African American historical heroes who made tremendous sacrifices to ensure that right to vote.
“I am reminded of all those folks who had to count bubbles in a bar of soap, beaten trying to register voters in Mississippi, risked everything so that they could pull that lever,” exclaimed President Obama before the predominately African American audience. “So if I hear anybody saying their vote does not matter, that it doesn’t matter who we elect – read up on your history. It matters. We’ve got to get people to vote.”
The history that President Obama spoke of is a very rich one, and worthy of remembrance.
Historically, no other group of people in this country have benefited from the sacrifices of those who fought and died in the Civil War, than African Americans. After the Civil War, many White people came from the North to live in the South in order to help African Americans thrive in the newly formed Reconstruction governments. Many African Americans, along with many White abolitionist candidates, were elected to Congress and some African Americans even became senators in the traditionally segregationist and slave-embracing South.
In spite of the many advances made by African Americans in America, they were not celebrated by everyone and they came with much opposition and even more sacrifice. Many former Confederate soldiers and supporters, who hated the Reconstruction governments in the South, realized that in order to reverse the advances made by African Americans and White abolitionists in this country, they had to stop Black people from voting.
People like Nathan Bedford Forrest, who served as a lieutenant general in the Confederate Army during the Civil War and was a pledged delegate from Tennessee to the New York Democratic national convention in July of 1868, joined in with several of his colleagues to form what we now know as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), where Forrest served as the organization’s first Grand Wizard. Forrest and his cohorts wore white robes and a hood to cover their face so they could not be recognized, as they presented themselves as the ghosts of dead Confederate soldiers. At night, the Klan would hang signs discouraging Black people from voting and even threatening to kill any African American who they found out had voted. Within a matter of years, the Klan quickly grew across all Southern states, and to further frighten African American voters, the Klan would gather together, while wearing their costumes, and set a large wooden cross on fire in front of the homes of Black men in cities all across the South. After issuing that “warning,” any Black man who was found to have registered and voted in the most recent election was lynched from a tree in public view so everyone in the city could see them and become reluctant about trying to vote in future elections. Many African Americans became frightened and were left unprotected, in that several members of law enforcement and the judicial system were secretly a part of the Klan, and participated in many of those heinous acts.
During the times of Reconstruction, African Americans were hated because many Whites, such as Forrest, believed Blacks were responsible for destroying the Confederacy, and because of those sentiments the Klan became much stronger and active as a result. As a result of the constant harassment and brutal killings of African Americans by the Klan, they began to dismiss voting altogether, which caused Blacks to lose political representation. In addition to that, subsequent generations of Whites, who had not been a part of the struggle to help liberate Black people here in America, began to slowly move away from the abolitionist movement, and gradually began to care less and less about the plight and struggles of African Americans in this country. Decades later, state governments in the South began to pass new sets of laws called “Jim Crow,” which were laws designed to separate Whites from Blacks, mandating that there had to be separate schools for Black and White children; that Blacks could not eat in the same restaurant as white people; that Blacks had to sit in the back of the bus, whereas Whites could sit up front; that Blacks could not ride in the same carriage as Whites on the trains; and that Blacks could not drink from the same water fountain as Whites. These laws were racially discriminatory and disparately impacted Blacks until federal legislation, such as the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, were passed to address it.
From 1880 to 1965, there was an all-out assault on preventing African Americans from voting by having their right to vote deemed invalid. The Fifteenth Amendment prohibited blatant disenfranchisement on the basis of race or prior enslavement, but many Southern states came up with a slew of new and innovative alternative techniques to disenfranchise Blacks after Reconstruction and during the “Jim Crow” era, such as enacting a poll tax and introducing literacy tests as a means to keep Blacks from voting.
While the traditional techniques of violence by the Klan and voter fraud in the vote counting became more recognizable and outdated, individuals developed new creative and crafty methods through legislation and the justice system, that are impacting Black people in 2016.
In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted Section 4 of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act that protected Blacks and other minorities in Southern states where discrimination still persists in many cases. As of 2016, a total of 34 states have laws requesting or requiring voters to show some form of identification at the polls, with 32 of the 34 voter identification laws being in force right now in 2016, including in the state of Texas. In August of last year, a federal appeals court ruled that at least part of Texas’ strict voter ID could not be enforced, but it is unclear whether the law will continue to be in effect in the future. All in all, blatant voting disenfranchisement has significantly impacted the well-being and livelihood of African Americans for decades.
Those that have sought to disenfranchise and discourage African Americans from voting know the importance of voting, as well as the profound impact that voting has on representation, political outcomes and critical decisions that must be made on major issues that impact us daily.
Fast forward to 2016, and we see that voting has become an even more important and crucial issue than it has ever been, yet many African Americans seemingly don’t consider it so. There are many African Americans who have turned a blind eye to the sacrifices made and the struggle that it took to obtain the right to vote, by flippantly taking for granted this important civil right.
In his speech to the CBC, President Obama also said the following as it relates to the current state of voting in America and why it should be important to today’s African Americans:
“Across this country, in 2016, there are those who are still trying to deny people the right to vote, we’ve got to push back twice as hard. Right now, in multiple states, Republicans are actively and openly trying to prevent people from voting. Adding new barriers to registration. Cutting early voting. Closing polling places in predominantly minority communities. Refusing to send out absentee ballots. Kicking people off the rolls, often incorrectly…This should be a national scandal. We were supposed to have already won that fight. We’re the only advanced democracy in the world that is actively discouraging people from voting. It’s a shame…There’s no such thing as a vote that doesn’t matter. It all matters. And after we have achieved historic turnout in 2008 and 2012, especially in the African American community, I will consider it a personal insult, an insult to my legacy, if this community lets down its guard and fails to activate itself in this election. You want to give me a good sendoff? Go vote…Hope is on the ballot. And fear is on the ballot, too. Hope is on the ballot, and fear is on the ballot, too. If you want to give Michelle and me a good sendoff, get people registered to vote. If you care about our legacy, realize everything we stand for is at stake. All the progress we’ve made is at stake in this election. My name may not be on the ballot, but our progress is on the ballot. Tolerance is on the ballot. Democracy is on the ballot. Justice is on the ballot. Good schools are on the ballot. Ending mass incarceration — that’s on the ballot right now…But if we are going to advance the cause of justice and equality and of prosperity and freedom, then we also have to acknowledge that even if we eliminated every restriction on voting, we would still have one of the lowest voting rates among free peoples. That’s not good. That is on us.”
President Obama is right, in that African Americans have the power to make the difference in the 2016 election – either by coming out to vote or by staying at home in November.
On the Civil Rights Memorial, located in Montgomery, Alabama, are inscribed the names of individuals who lost their lives in the struggle for freedom during the modern Civil Rights Movement from 1954 to 1968. Those unsuspecting victims became martyrs, killed because of their focus on voting rights and civil rights for Black people in this country.
On August 13, 1955 in Brookhaven, Mississippi, Lamar Smith was shot dead on the courthouse lawn by a white man in broad daylight while dozens of people watched. The killer was never indicted because no one would admit they saw a white man shoot a black man. Smith had organized blacks to vote in a recent election.
Rev. George Lee, one of the first black people registered to vote in his county, used his pulpit and his printing press to urge others to vote. On May 7, 1955 in Belzoni, Mississippi, White officials offered Lee protection on the condition he end his voter registration efforts, but Lee refused and was murdered.
On September 25, 1961, Herbert Lee, who worked with civil rights leader Bob Moses to help register black voters, was killed by a state legislator in Liberty, Mississippi, who claimed self-defense and was never arrested. Louis Allen, a black man who witnessed the murder, was later also killed.
Jonathan Myrick Daniels, a white Episcopal Seminary student in Boston, had come to Alabama on August 20, 1965, to help with black voter registration in Lowndes County. He was arrested at a demonstration, jailed in Hayneville and then suddenly released. Moments after his release, he was shot to death by a deputy sheriff.
On January 10, 1966 in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, Vernon Ferdinand Dahmer, a wealthy businessman, offered to pay poll taxes for those who couldn’t afford the fee required to vote. The night after a radio station broadcasted Dahmer’s offer, his home was firebombed. Dahmer died later from severe burns.
Jimmie Lee Jackson was beaten and shot by state troopers on February 26, 1965 in Marion, Alabama, as he tried to protect his grandfather and mother from a trooper attack on civil rights marchers. His death led to the Selma-Montgomery march and the eventual passage of the Voting Rights Act.
After learning of the many sacrifices made by African Americans and others, to ensure Blacks officially obtained the right to vote, one could only wonder if those martyrs are flipping over in their graves as they look upon the state of Black America today.
The freedom that African Americans have access to today was definitely not free. So much blood has been shed. So many lives have been lost.
Regardless of whether African Americans believe their vote will matter or not – and it most assuredly will – they will have to adhere to the laws enacted by those that have been elected. Time will tell whether African Americans will take their precious voting right for granted and purposefully ignore the importance of this election in November.
In Texas, you can register to vote by Tuesday, October 11, 2016. The first day of early voting is Monday, October 24th and it lasts until Friday, November 4th. Election Day is Tuesday, November 8th. This November, African Americans will either exercise their right to vote and help influence policy, or they will spit in the face of those who paved the way for them to do so.