History of voting, Part VII: The civil rights unveiled

A Liberal Dose


Last time, we talked about voting rights in the Jim Crow South and the fact that, via a combination of local laws that circumvented the 15th Amendment and physical violence or intimidation, most African-Americans (and some poor white people) were not allowed to vote in Southern states. From the late 1940s to the early 1960s, civil rights activists had been struggling to end segregation, but, by the early 1960s, they were focusing heavily on the right to vote. In Mississippi in 1962, only around 6 percent of eligible black voters were registered to vote (despite being one-third of the state’s population). Several civil rights groups came together under the umbrella of a newly formed coalition, The Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), to change that. The “federated organizations” in question were the Southern Christian Leadership Society (SCLC), led by MLK; the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “snik”); the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), who had organized the first “freedom rides” in 1947.

COFO embarked on a 10-week project known as “Freedom Summer” in which they endeavored to register as many black voters in Mississippi as possible. The work was done by a combination of local African-American activists and allies, black and white, from around the country. They were opposed by groups like the White Leagues and the Ku Klux Klan, by many white locals who may or may not have been affiliated with those organizations (and who frequently described the civil rights workers as “trash”), and by state and local government officials. Before the summer was out, over a thousand COFO volunteers had been arrested, 80 had been beaten, and 30 churches and 37 black-owned homes and businesses had been bombed or burned down.

On June 21, 1964, three young men who were engaged in voter registration work were arrested by a sheriff’s deputy who was also a Klansman. They were James Chaney, a local black man, and two young Jewish volunteers from New York City, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. They were released from jail after dark, whereupon they were ambushed by Klansmen, abducted, and murdered. It took weeks to find their bodies; while combing the swamps for them, searchers found the bodies of eight other murdered black males, killed recently.

It is a sad commentary, but a truth, that the murder of two white students from New York attracted a lot more media attention than the murders of nine black men from Mississippi. Press coverage of the incidents drew the country’s attention to the lack of voting rights African-Americans still suffered in the South - and the country was still reeling from the events of the previous late spring/summer (1963). From May to September of that year, TV viewers across the country had seen Bull Connor using attack dogs on black children in Birmingham, Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers was shot dead in his driveway, and four little girls were killed in a church bombing (also in Birmingham). People were calling for something to be done.

And the next year, something was: Congress passed, and LBJ signed into law, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The VRA expanded the federal government’s ability to enforce the 14th and 15th amendments. It outlawed literacy tests or any similar methods and prohibited state and local governments from passing voting laws that disadvantaged minorities. It also specified a special status for all states that had allowed any such disadvantaging techniques in the previous five years (to be revisited regularly) - which were mostly in the South and West. In such states, no changes to local or state laws about voting could be made without the approval of the U.S. attorney general or the U.S. district court in Washington DC. That last item protected minorities and greatly expanded their (constitutionally guaranteed) access to the ballot…until a Supreme Court decision in 2013.

--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.    


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