This fall, we are faced with the question of who will become president. And equally important – who can vote? Over the past decade, Republican lawmakers in more than 20 states have enacted laws making it harder to vote. In the most extreme cases, they require citizens to present government-issued ID to cast their ballots. Recently, these laws have been successfully challenged in the courts. This summer, federal courts overturned voting laws in North Carolina and North Dakota. In North Carolina, the court ruled against a state law requiring voters to present government-issued ID. The law also restricted, among other things, early voting and had a disproportionate effect on African-American voters. A federal judge ruled that the North Dakota voter ID law had a harmful impact on the ability of Native Americans to cast their vote. Looming over the controversy about voter ID laws is the history of voter suppression and the movement to open the ballot box to African-Americans. As a scholar in African-American history, I believe that today’s debate can be understood only by considering struggles of African-Americans for the vote in the past and in particular by looking at the story of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
The 15th Amendment extended the right to vote to African-American men in 1870. Loyal to Lincoln, African-American men voted en masse for the Republican Party. Soon after, the Democratic Party in the South stripped African-Americans of the vote and returned to power using a wave of violence and legislation.
In the 1870s, white paramilitary groups including the Ku Klux Klan and White Leagues toppled Republican governments, and the South became a one-party region controlled by the Democrats. Once in power, white Democrats required voters to pay a poll tax, which former slaves and their descendants could ill afford. “White primaries” excluded blacks from voting for primary election candidates. Once white Democrats made it through the primaries, they were guaranteed a victory in the general election because of the one-party system.
The fight over the ballot intensified in Mississippi in the 1950s and 1960s. Local African-American activists saw the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision as a window to advance other political objectives. One of them was voting, so they waged grassroots voter registration campaigns.