April 2, 2010

140 years after the 15th Amendment, more progress must be made on voting rights

From the Progressive:

It has been 140 years since the 15th Amendment was ratified, but we still have a ways to go to ensure the right to vote.

The 15th Amendment became part of the U.S. Constitution on March 30, 1870. It states: “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.” And it adds: “The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

With voting rights granted to former slaves, the change to the American political landscape was dramatic. There were more than 1,500 black political officeholders during Reconstruction, all of them Republicans. They included a governor and a lieutenant governor, state legislators and members of Congress and the Senate.

Despite the new voting rights protections guaranteed under the 15th Amendment, there was considerable Southern white resistance to black participation in American civic and political life. Groups such as the Ku Klux Klan were formed to intimidate blacks. And as federal troops left the South and Reconstruction came to a close, the South descended into an era of Jim Crow segregation. States engaged in the wholesale disenfranchisement of blacks, wiping them off the political map.

It was not until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that full citizenship rights would be restored to black people. During the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, dozens of people died securing that right.

And sadly, now, in 2010, remnants of Jim Crow remain.

An estimated 5.3 million Americans are denied the right to vote because of felony convictions, including 4 million who are out of prison. A third of them are black. That means one in eight black men can’t vote.

“As of 2004, more African-American men were disenfranchised (due to felon disenfranchisement laws) than in 1870, the year the 15th Amendment was ratified,” says Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”

Some politicians want to return us to the days of Jim Crow laws. At a Tea Party convention in Nashville, Tenn., in February, former Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo told an audience he lamented that “we do not have a civics, literacy test before people can vote in this country.” He added, “People who could not even spell the word ‘vote’ or say it in English, put a committed socialist ideologue in the White House.”

Tancredo’s objectionable statement was a not-so-subtle reference to literacy tests, a weapon of choice used by Jim Crow states to disenfranchise black voters.

On the 140th anniversary of the 15th Amendment, Tancredo and others would have us turn back the clock, and return to a time when people of color were denied the right to vote.

Let’s expand democracy rather than shrink it.

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