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).
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…