African-American Studies: Black Suffrage in the US

Black Suffrage simply refers to Blacks’ right to play an active role in voting exercise. For the purpose of this study, this paper observes black suffrage as it applied in the United States. The very matter of voting rights in the U.S. has been a contentious issue over the years. When America was founded, only white men who passed certain qualifications were allowed to vote. In those times, blacks were viewed as descendants of ancient immigrants who had moved to the Western from other parts of the world and for that reason were excluded from common social rights enjoyed by the Americans, such as the right to participate in voting.

The move to hinder blacks from voting was clearly manifested in the better part of the nineteenth century where numerous incidents of intimidation such as shootings and beating were observed from various parts of the country against those who dared to assert their right to vote1. Such events would over the time contribute to the intensification of the American division as the battle between the supporters and the opponents of the black suffrage continued. As far as these differences were concerned, blacks were the ones who suffered the biggest blow here, since they were disadvantaged by the issues of race and skin color among other social and cultural aspects. Based on recent observations, it is clear that the issue of black suffrage has always kept Americans divided than united.

Black suffrage has been a long journey which has called for a lot of sacrifice and dedication from black Americans and civil activists. For many years, activists have been in the frontline to pursue voting rights for the African-Americans or simply the blacks. This search for the voting freedom dates back to the Antebellum period which had begun in 1789, after the Revolutionary War, and which would continue up to 1860, just as the Civil War was about to start. In the course of the colonial period, most colonies were against black suffrage and would detest it completely. This was a fate affecting both slaves and free black Americans.

During those times, free Negroes in the country had little suffrage in some regions, owing to great resistance from some leaders in the U.S. who believed that only persons of the American origin had free access to such rights2. This clearly explains the reason as to why the bid to pave way to black suffrage was defeated in some states then, including New York. However, things were completely different in other states such as New Hampshire and Rhode Island whose populations comprised of a portion of African-Americans, and were in the front-line in accepting black suffrage. Other states in the region that had welcomed the idea would include Vermont, Marine and Maine.

A lot of concern and attention on the issue of black suffrage would rise in the course of the reconstruction era. It was in the course of this period when the American Congress passed laws which appeared to favor the blacks in their fight for the right to vote. However, irrespective of this achievement there were still many challenges in regard with voting that continued to affect blacks in their daily lives. The idea of black suffrage appeared to receive a significant recognition from presidents Abraham and Andrew, who preferred to follow an indulgent approach to the South by taking the voting right back in the hands of ex-Confederates. Based on this observation, it was clear that the issue of black suffrage was not anywhere in the agenda of the two presidents.

Republicans in Congress had confidence that it was only through black suffrage that African-Americans would be able to acquire freedom and liberties, and for that reason, they overruled Johnson and initiated a Reconstruction comprising of voting rights for blacks in the South. In this regard, the Southern blacks were able to exercise their voting right. Following this move, Federal troops in the South had the responsibility of ensuring that African-Americans exercised the right to vote and that people of the same originality who were residents were eligible for elective positions in the government.

Although Republicans had successfully managed to secure black suffrage in many Southern states using the Reconstruction approach, African-Americans in other states still lacked freedom to the right of voting. The 1870 Amendment clearly stated that nobody should be denied suffrage due to reasons that are based on skin color and race, among other common social and cultural aspects which are likely to divide people. However, black suffrage would appear to be short-lived when the country started becoming tired of Reconstruction in the course of 1870s. Many original Americans had constantly shown great resistance to the idea of black suffrage. This was clearly manifested in the 1877 presidential elections when Rutherford Hayes won the ticket to the Whitehouse in a highly-contested election, after pledging to do everything possible to see that the Federal troops were eradicated from the South3.

This move saw many White Southerners regain their political rights and returning to power with plans to revoke the right to suffrage. After completely achieving political control of the South, the white Democrats applied all sorts of violence to intimidate black voters, thus despising them from taking part in voting exercise. Some of the approaches of intimidation used here would include, but are not limited to, property qualifications, poll taxes and the application of literary tests with the aim of depriving blacks of the vote.

Despite the Democrats attempt to disenfranchise black voters, African-Americans, both men and women, were not easily moved and would show their solidarity for each other by coming together to establish suffrage movements across the nation. As a result of this, many African-Americans turned into active abolitionists and supporters of their own rights as legal citizens. A perfect perspective in the fight for black suffrage can be observed through the courageous and active steps taken by African-American women through woman suffrage movement.

The period between 1880 and 1900 saw the formation of black women clubs and movements whose main agenda was to advocate for equality and recognition of all citizens in the country, regardless of color or race differences4. Some of the key players in the African-American woman suffrage in the course of this period would include Sojouner Truth, Margaretta Forten and Mary Ann Shass Cary. Despite the massive support enjoyed by the women in their suffrage movements, they still had to deal with a lot of challenges even from within the movements themselves. The passing of the 19th Amendment in 1920 enfranchised all women in the country, regardless of skin color or race. However, ten years later, most black women in the South were legally disenfranchised due to vigilante practices and state laws, and it was not until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s when this move was reversed, thus returning voting rights to black women in the region.

The Civil Rights Movement which begun from 1955 through 1968 was an initiative of the black Americans. The main focus of the movement was to generate renewed attention and concern in the voting rights of black people. As it would be observed, one of the major goals of this famous movement was to challenge the restrictions that had been established solely with the aim of ensuring that African-Americans were barred from taking part in voting exercise. During the movement, civil rights activists went out to every corner of the South urging blacks to come out in large masses and register to vote. This approach was seen by many as the first step in the move to overcome the restrictions. This massive action would result to the assassination of at least three people who served as civil activists in the course of an initiative that was intended to register blacks in the state of Mississippi in the year 1964.

These killings raised nationwide concern on the matter, thus necessitating the 24th Amendment in 1964, whose main aim was to abolish the poll tax. This was followed closely by the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Act gave a restriction on the use of approaches such as literary tests to deny eligible voters the right to exercise their Constitutional rights and democratic rights through voting5. The Act also granted the U.S. attorney general the authority to dispatch federal examiners to ensure eligible voters were registered in the regions where local registration officials tried to obstruct the exercise due to reasons based on race or skin color, among other social-cultural factors.

As it is shown in this research work, black suffrage has over the years raised significant differences between the original American citizens and the African-Americans. While the former believe that voting is a preserve of the natives, the latter have always asserted that they are citizens just as their counterparts, and for that reason they deserve to be recognized and granted equal right to voting. As much as the idea of black suffrage appears to have kept America apart, it has also played a significant role in uniting it. Registration of black voters in the South and other regions of the country has increased tremendously over the years, thus giving this group of people which makes a significant proportion of the entire population a fair representation in the government, and that unites the Americans to some extent.

More importantly, it is clear that black voters have turned out to be influential in presidential elections based on the recent political structure. If anything, this could be among the key transformations which the Black Americans had been waiting for in order to be able to realize their big dreams. It is also worthy of note that the current U.S. president is an African-American whose ascend to power has come by as a result of unity between the whites and the blacks, a move which has been made possible by black suffrage.

Reference List

Buechler, Steven. Women’s movements in the United States: Woman suffrage, equal rights, and beyond. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990.

Franklin, John, and Higginbothan, Evelyn. From Slavery to Freedom. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010.

Henry, Louis, and West Cornell. The Future of the Race. New York: Vintage Books, 1997.

Hill, Lisa. African American Studies Reader. San Francisco: Kendall Hunt, 2013.

Wang, Xi. “Black suffrage and the Redefinition of American Freedom, 1860-1870.” Cardozo L. Rev 17, no. 9 (1995): 215-219.

Footnotes

  1. John Franklin and Higginbothan Evelyn. From Slavery to Freedom. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010.
  2. Xi Wang. “Black suffrage and the Redefinition of American Freedom, 1860-1870.” Cardozo L. Rev 17, no. 9 (1995): 215-219.
  3. Louis Henry and West Cornell. The Future of the Race. New York: Vintage Books, 1997.
  4. Steven Buechler. Women’s movements in the United States: Woman suffrage, equal rights, and beyond. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990.
  5. Lisa Hill. African American Studies Reader. San Francisco: Kendall Hunt, 2013.