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Juneteenth at New Voters: The Struggle for the Vote

Contributed by Muthu Meenakshisundaram, New Voters Communications Intern

On June 19, 1865, General Gordon Granger read out federal orders in Texas that freed enslaved people. Though the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued two and a half years before, news traveled slowly and people changed their minds even more slowly, and as a result, June 19 became the true Emancipation Day for hundreds of thousands of people. Since then, the day has been celebrated as Juneteenth to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States.

Fredrick Douglass said in Life and Times of Fredrick Douglass, “No man can be truly free whose liberty is dependent upon the thought, feeling and action of others, and who has himself no means in his own hands for guarding, protecting, defending and maintaining that liberty.” True freedom transcends mere emancipation; it lies in one’s ability to shape the world around them through their own choices. True freedom is the ability to voice your opinion and have it heard. True freedom is the right to vote.

But Black Americans wouldn’t be granted the right to vote until a few years later in 1868 and 1870 with the passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution respectively. Even then, state and local governments began relentless voter suppression efforts. The first of these were Black codes, local and state laws that restricted when and where former enslaved people could work and how much they could earn. With former Confederates serving at all levels of the legal system, Black people were often incarcerated at much higher rates and for much longer sentences than their White counterparts. When the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified, it abolished slavery in all instances except as punishment for a crime. This clause, along with the racially biased legal system, worked to subject Black people to the same backbreaking work they did while enslaved. If a Black man was lucky enough to make it to the polling station on Election Day unscathed by targeted racial violence, he would then face literacy tests (enslaved people weren’t allowed to learn how to read, and the tests were rigged) and/or poll taxes (Black people often couldn’t afford to pay these as their wages were restricted by Black codes).

These voter suppression efforts and the growing civil rights movement came to a head in March 1965 during a peaceful march from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama, which was a response to a state trooper killing a young Black man during another peaceful demonstration just a month prior. Dr. King and others set out from Selma on Sunday, March 7. It wasn’t long before they were met by Alabama state troopers using whips, nightsticks, and tear gas to beat them back, a scene that was captured on national television. In the months that followed, Dr. King and thousands of others continued to hold protests, eventually forcing President Lyndon Johnson to advocate for and sign the Voting Rights Act. The VRA eradicated poll taxes, literacy tests, and countless other methods of voter disenfranchisement. It was the culmination of almost a century of bloodshed and struggle against voter suppression.

But the struggle for voting rights continues. The American Civil Liberties Union is one of the many organizations that argue that some states’ requirement of a photo ID to vote in effect prohibits some lower income citizens from voting, as obtaining a photo ID can be expensive. On the other hand, supporters of strict voter ID laws argue that they are required to prevent fraud and maintain the integrity of elections. Further, in some states, if someone is convicted of a felony, they lose their right to vote. Some people argue that this is another form of targeted voter suppression against Black people, who are incarcerated at rates disproportionate to their population size. Still others argue that there are some broader barriers to voting. For example, since Election Day is not a holiday, voters often need to miss work for a couple hours, which not all Americans can do.

According to many, the fight isn’t over, but this Juneteenth, we honor the years of sacrifice that gave Black Americans the votes they have today.

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