Since 1926, a theme has been designated each February that brings attention to a critical moment in African-American history.
According to the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), Carter G. Woodson, an African-American scholar, “realized the importance of providing a theme to focus the attention of the public. The intention has never been to dictate or limit the exploration of the Black experience, but to bring to the public’s attention important developments that merit emphasis.”1
Past themes have ranged from specific achievements in black history such as President Barack Obama National Black History Month Proclamation (2012) or Before Brown, Beyond Boundaries: Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education (2004) to more contemporary topics like Civil Rights in America (2014) and this year’s theme, African Americans and the Vote.
In honor of this year’s Black History Month theme, expand your knowledge of African American history and be inspired by the dedication of those who fought to obtain their right to vote in America.
A Brief History of African-American Voting Rights in America
The theme for 2020 celebrates the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment that granted women’s suffrage (1920), as well as the 150th anniversary of the 15th Amendment (1870), which gave black men the right to vote.
Soon after the 15th Amendment was passed, many states adopted new laws to prevent African-American’s from voting. In the Jim Crow South, poll taxes, literacy tests, and voter intimidation by white supremacists became prevalent tactics of voter suppression.
Leo Carr, an African-American man from Hardin County, Texas paid $1.50, or $13 in today’s dollars, to vote in January of 1955. According to William Pretzer, the senior history curator of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, “It’s a day’s wages. You’re asking someone to pay a day’s wages in order to be able to vote.”2
A decade later, after schools were desegregated, after 1,200 members of the United States military escorted nine African-American students to attend their first day of high school, after the public deaths of voting-rights activists in Philadelphia and Mississippi, after the murder of peaceful marchers by state troopers in Selma, Alabama, after Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of the bus, after Martin Luther King Jr. declared, “I have a dream,” and after many other injustices, acts of activism, and perseverance, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed.3
The new law, which mirrored the 15th Amendment, “applied a nationwide prohibition against the denial or abridgment of the right to vote on the literacy tests on a nationwide basis.”3 Additional amendments were passed in the late 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and again in 2006 to prohibit poll taxes, extend voting protections to Hispanic, Asian, and Native American citizens, and eliminated the provision for voting examiners.3
In New York City, between 1965 and 2020, voters have elected the first African-American woman to Congress, the first African-American woman to city-wide office, the first African-American mayor of New York City, and the first African-American candidate for a major Party’s nomination for President of the United States.
Current Issues Facing African-American Voters in 2020
While African-American representation in politics and voting rights have improved since the passage of the 15th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, disenfranchisement and voter suppression have persisted. In a 2019 op-ed in the Washington Post, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said that, “Over the past decade, the conservative Supreme Court has reshaped the American political system in ways that fundamentally undermine voting rights and equal representation in our nation.”
In 2019, the Supreme Court determined that federal judges have no power to stop politicians from drawing electoral districts to preserve or expand their party’s power. The ruling allows political parties to gerrymander, or manipulate the boundaries of an electoral constituency, in order to advance their interests and get their candidates elected.
While district maps cannot be drawn to discriminate against voters based on race, minority advocates are concerned that the Supreme Court’s decision could allow lawmakers to discriminate against non-white voters.4
After the Jim Crow era, America entered its post-racial period - one that was meant to be free from racial preference, discrimination, and prejudice. Immediately afterward, the Nixon Administration began suppressing votes from communities of color in the 1970s, the Reagan Administration explicitly targeted communities of color with The War on Drugs in the 1980s, the Bush and Clinton Administrations accelerated the mass incarceration of African Americans in the 1990s.
Since 1973, New York’s prison population has increased by 400% and a disproportionate amount of New York’s prisons are comprised of black men in their 30’s.5 With nearly 48,000 New Yorker’s currently incarcerated, 48% of which are African-American, has resulted in the suppression of African-American voting rights in New York State.6
How to Support African-American Voters in 2020
In New York City, there are organizations across the five boroughs that are fighting back against systemic racism and voter suppression. Get involved with one of the following organizations in 2020 and help your fellow New Yorkers get to the voting booth in November.
- NYCLU: From the legalization of marijuana to demanding police transparency the New York Civil Liberties Union is a movement that fights for justice, freedom, and equality. Stand with the NYCLU and stand against injustice.
- CANY: As the only independent organization in New York with authority under state law to monitor prisons the Correctional Association of New York helps shape the public debate on prison reform. Get involved with CANY to fight against mass incarceration.
- Innocence Project: Join over 800,000 supporters who are on a mission to reform the criminal justice system. The Innocence Project’s mission is to free the staggering number of innocent people who are incarcerated and prevent future injustices.
For additional volunteer opportunities in NYC, explore our community partners that are improving the environment, fighting for social justice, and expanding arts programs in the five boroughs and abroad.
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