Modern US History

All the modern US history fit to print

Category: Example – Voting Rights


Voting has historically played a significant role in the rights of US citizens, especially as a major source of contestation in modern US history. Voting not only helps to define citizenship and decide elected leaders, but the right to vote has historically gone hand-in-hand with other democratic rights within the US, such as the right to serve on a jury and the right to testify in court (Keyssar 2000, 14).  Thus, the desire to vote has shaped some of the US’s most significant movements, especially for African Americans and women (Flexner and Fitzpatrick 1996; Fairclough 2001). This digital exhibition on Voting Rights and Wrongs in Modern US History shows that disenfranchisement was a tool of the powerful that galvanized marginalized groups from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century.

The denial of voting rights has played an important role in denying political power to African American men and women, and white women. African American men gained the franchise in 1870 with the ratification of the 15th Amendment, but after the relatively short period of Reconstruction, Jim Crow was cemented in the South (Gilmore 1996, 22). Central to Jim Crow were multiple measures that effectively disenfranchised African Americans, such as poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses (Anderson 2016: 18-42). African Americans then had to fight for the right to vote for most of the next century – up to the Selma campaign of the civil rights movement and the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 (Fairclough 2002).

Selma Voting Rights

civil rights movement: “We march with Selma!”
Demonstrators carrying a banner reading “We march with Selma!” in the Harlem section of New York City, March 1965.
Stanley Wolfson—WT&S/Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (LC-USZ62-135695)

Meanwhile, (white) woman’s suffrage got its start in 1848 at the Seneca Falls Convention. By the time American women finally won the right to vote with the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, the woman’s suffrage movement had become a complex force shaping US history over a period of seven decades. During that time, white women’s suffrage groups often staked their claim to voting rights in white supremacist rhetoric and ignored African American women’s claims that the suffrage movement needed to address the disenfranchisement of African Americans in the South. (Terborg-Penn 1998: 54-80).

Meanwhile, African American women refused to relinquish their fight for the vote at the turn of the twentieth century. They created spaces to argue for their enfranchisement within both white-dominated groups like the American Woman Suffrage Association and African American periodicals like The Crisis (Davis 1983, 114). By the time the civil rights movement mobilized in the 1950s and 60s, a number of African American women including Mississippi sharecropper Fannie Lou Hamer and Alabama activist Amelia Boynton were at the forefront of the struggle against disenfranchisement in the South (Lee 1999).

Taking from scholar Carol Anderson, this project will define voting rights in terms of both gaining the franchise itself as well as the removal of obstructions to voting (Anderson 2018, 5). As such, this project will emphasize African Americans’ and women’s relationship to voting rights; African American women’s overlap within various struggles for the vote will be given special importance. Because efforts to construct barriers to voting for African American men began in earnest during the era of Redemption, the 1880s will be the starting point for this project. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 will serve as the major endpoint for the project.

Starting with Redemption and considering the firm installation of Jim Crow, this project will address the multiple ways in which white lawmakers and citizens kept African Americans from the polls. For instance, Georgia’s 1877 cumulative poll tax bill…

Reconstruction and Jim Crow

Center for Mass Communication at Columbia University, Selma-Montgomery March, 1965

In January 1965, civil rights movement leader Martin Luther King, Jr., brought his Southern Christian Leadership Conference to Selma, Alabama, after the local Dallas County Voter’s League invited them to participate in their voting rights campaign (Fairclough 2000). The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had been working with Amelia Boynton’s Voter’s League because it had one of the worst records in the country in terms of the low numbers of African American citizens on the voting rolls (Jeffries 2009). In March of 1965, after local police tried to brutally suppress a Selma-to-Montgomery march once already, hundreds of African American and white citizens from Alabama and across the country successfully marched from Selma to Montgomery to protest the disenfranchisement of African Americans. During the course of the march, Columbia University’s Center for Mass Communication compiled first-hand footage that shows both leaders and ordinary US citizens’ participation in the demonstration through song, speeches and the march itself.

The 1965 Voting Rights Act

The Selma march is widely credited for resulting in landmark legislation, the 1965 Voting Rights Act (Fairclough 2000; Anderson 2016). The opening paragraph of this legislation, which is excerpted below, explicit linked Jim Crow’s disenfranchisement tools such as poll taxes to the objective of removing democratic power from African Americans.  The Voting Rights Act outlawed poll taxes, literacy tests and “other bureaucratic restrictions [used] to deny” African Americans the vote, and it also provided federal oversight in areas (like Dallas County, Alabama) where the numbers of Black Americans on the voting rolls had been kept particularly low by white registrars. Because other provisions of the Act were locally enforced – meaning that they could often be ignored without federal oversight or pressure – the full power of black voters was not realized (Anderson 2016; Anderson 2018). Still, voting rolls swelled because of the Voting Rights Act. In Mississippi, for instance, voter turnout amongst African Americans went from 6% in 1964 to 59% in 1969 (Fairclough 2002, 253).

This “act to enforce the fifteenth amendment to the Constitution” was signed into law 95 years after the amendment was ratified. In those years, African Americans in the South faced tremendous obstacles to voting, including poll taxes, literacy tests, and other bureaucratic restrictions to deny them the right to vote. They also risked harassment, intimidation, economic reprisals, and physical violence when they tried to register or vote. As a result, very few African Americans were registered voters, and they had very little, if any, political power, either locally or nationally.

Link to full document:

Women’s Suffrage

African American Women and the Vote

Document 16L: Mary B. Talbert, “Women and Colored Women,” The Crisis (August 1915): 184.

It should not be necessary to struggle forever against popular prejudice, and with us as colored women; this struggle becomes two-fold, first, because we are women and second because we are colored women. Although some resistance is experienced in portions of our country against the ballot for women, because colored women will be included, I firmly believe that enlightened men are now numerous enough everywhere to encourage this just privilege of the ballot for women, ignoring prejudice of all kinds.

The great desire of our nation to produce the most perfect form of government shows incontestable proofs of advance. Advanced methods in prison reforms are shown by our own state Commissioner, Miss Katherine B. Davis. Advanced methods in school reforms are shown by Mrs. Ella Flagg Young, Superintendent of Education of Chicago. Advanced methods in the treatment of childhood and adolescence, are shown by the bureau of child welfare under Mrs. Julia C. Lathrop. Each of these women have been most kindly toward the colored women. In our own race advanced methods of industrial training are shown by Miss Nannie H. Burroughs, Mrs. Charlotte Hawkins Brown, and Mrs. Mary McLeod Bethune, and numbers of other colored women in various lines have blazed the path of reform.

By her peculiar position the colored woman has gained clear powers of observation and judgment — exactly the sort of powers which are today peculiarly necessary to the building of an ideal country.

Source retrieved from: Women and social movements in the United States 1600 – 2000



Primary Sources

Center for Mass Communication, Selma-Montgomery March, 1965. New York: Columbia University, 1965.

Voting Rights Act of 1965, Pub. L. No. 89-110. (1965).

Secondary Sources

Anderson, Carol. 2018. One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy. New York: Bloomsbury.

— 2016. White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide. New York: Bloomsbury.

Davis, Angela. 1983. Women, Race and Class. New York: Penguin.

Fairclough, Adam. 2002. Better Day Coming: Blacks and Equality, 1890-2000. New York: Penguin Books.

Flexner, Eleanor and Ellen Fitzpatrick. 1996. Century of Struggle: The Woman’s Rights Movement in the United States, Enlarged Edition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Gilmore, Glenda. 1996. Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896-1920. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Keyssar, Alexander. 2000. The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States. New York: Basic Books.

Lee, Chana Kai. 1999. For Freedom’s Sake: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press.

Terborg-Penn, Rosalyn. 1998. African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press.

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