Voting, Citizenship and Three Fifths A Person
We are on the eve of yet another election, and it is incumbent that people get out and vote. And while voter apathy is something that cuts across racial lines, it is important that African-Americans understand the historical backdrop and why African-Americans must vote not only in this election but every election.
When we examine the History of America, where the founders fought against tyranny Declaring their Independence in 1776 and stating that “All Men are Created Equal. And after a Revolutionary War a Constitution was put in place that states in its Preamble, “We the People, in order to establish a more perfect union, establish justice.” But these laudable words were not translated into action by the framers of this nation by the time the Constitution was drafted in 1787.
Black humanity was already an issue as this country began as it was in the throes of the evil institution of Chattel Slavery. A dehumanized institution that relegated humans to the status of another person’s property and to be bought and sold like farm animals.
With that as a backdrop, the framers of liberty did not consider their darker brothers as being part of the family of full humanity. When it was said and done these flawed men came up with the 3/5ths Compromise where Blacks were counted as 3/5th of a White person. This has led to a tenuous relationship that African-Americans have with their legal citizenship and to be recognized as full human beings with the same rights and Whites.
Up from Slavery and the Myth of Abraham Lincoln
After the country was involved in the Civil War; that was less about abolishing Slavery something and more about preserving the Union. And while the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln himself, would evolve over time to be in favor of accepting limited Black suffrage he was not a proponent of Black equality.
In one of his famous debates with Stephen Douglas in 1858, Lincoln said on the question Black Equality, “I will say then that I am not nor have ever been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of White and Black races. He also stated that he opposed Blacks having the right to vote, to serve on juries, to hold office and to intermarry with Whites.
But determined abolitionist led by Frederick Douglass fought for Black Equality, after the Civil War ended the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments were added to the U.S. Constitution, ending slavery, giving Blacks equal protection under the law and granting Black males the right to vote. Under Reconstruction, Blacks held offices in states across the former Confederate States with Louisiana having elected officials at the local and state level rising to the offices of Lt. Governor and Governor.
Reconstruction, Deconstruction and Destruction of Blacks and the Right to Vote
But in a controversial Presidential Election of 1876 over electoral votes, the Republicans made a deal with the Southern Democrats. First Southerners agreed to support Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes for President. With Republicans promising to withdraw troops from the south and abandoning federal enforcement of Black rights, which included their right to vote.
Also, White terrorist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan in Tennessee and the White League in Louisiana fought to suppress the Black vote and other gains by Blacks during Reconstruction. Within a few years, the Southern States Government required Blacks to pay voting taxes, pass literacy tests and many other unfair practices to discourage and prevent them from voting.
These practices reduced the numbers of Blacks in Louisiana from voting. That according to the 1900 Census was 47 percent of the state’s population had been reduced from a high of 130,334 during Reconstruction to 5,320 by 1900 and by 1910, only 730 Blacks were registered to vote, less than 0.5% of eligible Black men. In 27 of the states 60 parishes (today 64 parishes), not a single Black voter was registered. In nine more parishes only one Black voter was registered.
Strides Towards Freedom: Civil Rights the Wrongs of America
In the period most know of the Modern Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 60’s led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and many others that include New Orleans own heroes and sheroes that Rev. A.L. Davis, Rev. Avery Alexander, Oretha Castle Haley, Julia Aaron, Jerome Smith, Rudy Lombard, and so many others who fought for full enfranchisement of African-Americans.
These collective strides toward freedom eventually led to the signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. These laws as others were met with resistance by Whites, but as people came to know their rights they began the march towards going to the polls electing Blacks as mayors, city council persons and other elected offices.
Closer to home, New Orleans elected its first Black Mayor in 1977, Ernest Dutch Morial, who was also the first Black to serve in the Louisiana Legislature since Reconstruction. This was contributed to demographic shifts and laws that allowed Blacks began to vote and hold leadership positions in New Orleans and cities across America.
This was a time when Blacks given the vote came out in higher numbers and believed that leadership selected by them would net better results in their communities. This was met with mixed results as was realized that politicians whether White, Black or other are both good and bad.
But it must be noted that the symbolic gains were beneficial in that they inspired people who’d been excluded from choosing their leaders. And as they gained power it was necessary to note that citizens demand accountability. That the power was not with the politicians alone, but with them as civic engagement was necessary to continue the climb forward for African-Americans and that voting alone would not solve the problems of the community and that a holistic approach would be needed to address issues facing the African-American community.
Restoring Hope through the Vote
Today across America some have chosen not to exercise their right to vote. In many elections in New Orleans there have been elections where less than 25 percent of registered voters cast a ballot. Blacks, who have had a tenuous and uncertain history of citizenship, equal rights and justice cannot afford not to vote.
But what must be realized is that today symbols of progress while sufficient in the 1960’s and 70’s are not acceptable. That we need leadership and also, we must advocate and press our elected leaders for greater accountability. There must be a renewing of the citizens and their commitment to civic action and engagement. So, going to the polls is one way to have a hand in influencing what is to become public policy.
In an age of Trumpism we are witnessing the last grasp of systematic White male privilege in a country that by 2045 will become majority people of color. Today we are witnessing some of the same vitriol and resentment politics that is reminiscent of the worst times in our history.
No longer can Blacks sit idly by and not be engaged at the polls. This election as is all elections is important. Recently, we made history by electing the City’s first woman Mayor, LaToya Cantrell. On this ballot of special importance is Louisiana Constitutional Amendment 2 regarding non-unanimous verdicts in serious felonies. Something that is a Jim Crow Era Law that’s still on the books and is the cause of many Blacks being sentenced to long prison sentences including life behind bars.
When it comes to Blacks voting, there are still those who try to obstruct. But the mountain climb to full equality that seemed insurmountable for our fore parents has been reduced to a speed bump in the 21st Century. If we are proactive and organized, we can get to the polls. This must be a priority for us as a people if we are to not only survive but thrive.
In 2018 we as African-Americans have the opportunity to vote without poll taxes, literacy test, the Ku Klux Klan and other White terrorist organizations keeping us away from the polls. So, on Nov. 6th get out and restore hope and continue the fight for liberty, justice and equality through the vote. Let your voice be heard and shape the history of this city, state and nation.