How We Got Here: A Brief History of African American Voting Rights in America

Today, many of us take the right to vote for granted. However, our ancestors who did not have this right had to fight tooth and nail against a system that prevented them from taking part in the great American democracy. Women, African Americans and other minorities alike dedicated their voices -and in many cases, their lives- to this battle. You will hear me talking a lot about 10:19 throughout this campaign. It is important for us to remember the sacrifices made in the past to ensure that we know what we are fighting for in the present. 

"You can never know where you are going unless you know where you have been."

-Amelia Boynton, Civil Rights Activist

 
 
 Clockwise from top left: Addie Mae (age 14), Denise (age 11), Carole (age 14), and Cynthia (age 14). 

Clockwise from top left: Addie Mae (age 14), Denise (age 11), Carole (age 14), and Cynthia (age 14). 

Bombingham

On Sunday, September 15th, 1963, at 10:19 am, a bomb detonated at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The bomb had been planted by Ku Klux Klan members the night before under the front steps. The blast killed four young girls attending Sunday school. The senseless horror and cruelty of the crime sent the city into a tailspin. However, the seasoned, non-violent organizers decided to redirect that anger and hurt into a strategic campaign for voting rights for African Americans. The bombing was meant to terrorize the African American community, instead it galvanized and lead to a critical turning point in the Civil Rights movement. The right to vote now had more urgency than ever. 

 
 Amelia Boynton, Civil Rights activist, after she was beaten unconscious by state troopers on Bloody Sunday.

Amelia Boynton, Civil Rights activist, after she was beaten unconscious by state troopers on Bloody Sunday.

Bloody Sunday

Following the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which legally ended segregation, little had improved for African Americans. They still had no real voice, no ability to cast a vote, due to racist practices such as poll taxes and impossible literacy tests. In 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. organized three marches, from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama to bring attention to this problem. The first march ended in tragedy when the nonviolent marchers were attacked by police officers on horseback with billy clubs and tear gas. After the third march, and the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson and Viola Liuzzo, President Lyndon B. Johnson finally introduced the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to Congress and demanded they pass it. The speech he gave that day, March 15th, 1965, affirmed the actions of the Civil Rights movement.  

“Even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause, too, because it is not just Negroes but really it is all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”
— President Lyndon B. Johnson
 
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Today

Thankfully, these sacrifices were not made in vain. However, there are still attacks made on voting rights today, including inconsistent and difficult to understand voter registration laws, unfounded claims from the President himself of large-scale voter fraud, and programs like Crosscheck that do more harm than good. It is up to us to ensure that we safeguard the rights that our ancestors fought for, and voting rights are the most basic and fundamental of these. They help us stay true to those principle words in the Constitution of this great country that demand a government that is of, by, and for the people.

Join me in this fight!