Thomas Paine, the most radical of the nation’s Founders, wrote in 1795: “The right of voting for representatives is the primary right by which other rights are protected.” Eighty years later, feminist Susan B. Anthony quoted Paine’s exact words to defend herself—and make the case for women’s suffrage—when she was being prosecuted for having persuaded her local poll-keepers in upstate New York to allow her to cast a ballot. And on signing the Voting Rights Act in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson observed that “the vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men.” If only the words spoken by Paine, Anthony, and LBJ were not just moving, but also true. The right to vote has been fundamental to the struggle for freedom, equality, and democracy—and surely, the most defining experience of citizenship is that of casting a ballot at election time. Nonetheless, we should never forget, first, that even if we define democracy simply as universal adult suffrage, the United States has only recently come close to living up to its proclaimed purpose of serving as history’s grand democratic experiment; and second, that even when the right to vote itself has finally been won, it does not mean it has been fully secured. Enfranchisement has neither prevented ruling elites from continuing to exploit and oppress, nor kept them from turning things around and effectively stripping fellow citizens of their hard-won rights—including the right to vote itself.
The post-Civil War Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granting African-American men the right to vote states very clearly: Section 1: The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. Section 2: The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation. And yet, as President Franklin Roosevelt himself was to observe in the 1930s: “New laws, in themselves, do not bring a millennium.” And he might well have added that not even Constitutional Amendments necessarily do.
Southern black men were granted full rights of citizenship and the franchise after the Civil War. Nonetheless, in ensuing decades, propertied white supremacists still found ways to subject African Americans to coercive labor systems such as sharecropping, debt peonage, and chain gangs; impose Jim Crow segregation with the endorsement of the Supreme Court (Plessy v Ferguson, 1896); and—by way of both a generous mix of law and thuggery, as well as the deference of Congress—to deny the vote to millions of blacks (not to mention poor whites).
Taking decades of struggle and sacrifice, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 launched a revolution in American democratic life. And yet, as recent events in the nation’s streets, legislative galleries, and courtrooms testify, racism persists and the struggle for racial justice and equal rights continues.