In theory, the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution on February 3, 1870, gave black men the right to vote, and black women achieved the same when the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified August 18, 1920.
As black men began exercising their right to vote and, even more importantly, their right to participate in the political process as elected officials after the Civil War, the Southern white power structure clamped down by ending Reconstruction and the lofty idea of democracy for all.
Florida led the way with a legislative act in 1889 authorizing a poll tax that its 1885 state constitution already sanctioned. By 1902, Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, North Carolina, Alabama, Virginia and Texas had followed suit. And by 1908, all Southern states had a poll tax requiring one pay to vote. So, at the onset of the 20th century, black men had once again been disenfranchised through the poll tax, literacy tests and grandfather clauses, which prevented those whose grandfathers had not voted from voting.
Prior to the 1950s and 1960s, civil rights leadership attacked this legal obstruction of voting rights. FDR and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt even publicly opposed the poll tax. By the time the Selma campaign launched, the disenfranchisement of black voters was no secret.
Locally, the Dallas County Voters League (DCVL), founded in 1926 by C.J. Adams, who also founded the Selma chapter of the NAACP in 1918, had long been tackling black voter disenfranchisement. Amelia Boynton and her husband, Samuel Boynton, began their activity with the DCVL back in the 1930s, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee joined those efforts in 1963.
By the time Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Council made Selma a main focus, decades of hard work and activism had preceded them.
Still, change didn’t come until the national broadcast of Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, where peaceful protesters were mercilessly attacked and beaten by Alabama State Troopers and local police as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on their way to Montgomery during their campaign for federal legislation to enfranchise black voters.
Outrage over the attack gave President Lyndon B. Johnson and Congress the momentum needed to finally pass the Voting Rights Act months later, on August 6, 1965 (a date chosen to honor the date Abraham Lincoln signed the Confiscation Act freeing those enslaved by the Confederacy), which granted, among other things, federal supervision of voter registration.
The results were dramatic, with thousands and thousands of black voters registering to vote in Alabama and other Southern states.
Attempts to turn back the clock, however, have not ceased.
Back in 2013, the Supreme Court dealt the Voting Rights Act, which had been re-authorized in 2006, a mighty blow in its Shelby County v. Holder ruling. Shelby County in Alabama, a predominantly white suburb of Birmingham, sued the U.S. Attorney General, then led by Eric Holder, in 2010 on the grounds that Section 4(b) and Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act were unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court essentially agreed, tossing out Section 4 mandating and outlining that states and other jurisdictions with a history of voting discrimination go through “preclearance” before updating their voting laws or redistricting, and Section 5, which required certain states and jurisdictions to automatically go through preclearance before changing their voting laws and practices.
A federal appeals panel ruling Tuesday striking down a Texas ID law requiring voters to bring a government-issued photo ID to the polls, with acceptable forms including a driver’s license, a U.S. passport, a concealed-handgun license and a State Department of Public Safety-issued election identification certificate, offers a glimmer of hope.
As simple as it may seem, obtaining photo ID is not easy for all. Elderly black people, for example, born via midwives may not have the mandated documentation to obtain a photo ID.
In some Southern states, where these requirements were enacted, many black Americans who had voted for decades were unable to vote. For homeless Americans, residency requirements may disenfranchise them. There is a plethora of scenarios.
New voting challenges, mainly from the GOP, have, no doubt, prompted President Obama to call for a restoration of the Voting Rights Act. In reality, however, we need more than a restoration. Frankly speaking, our voting process is archaic. We are in the 21st century, not the 20th.
With our increased mobility, is it fair to require that voters vote in only one location? Early voting and extended voting periods have proven successful, so why not normalize them? Should we even have to visit polling places at all? Given our ability to order merchandise securely online using various methods of payment, why are we unable to vote online?
As we celebrate the enormous victory of passing the Voting Rights Act of 1965 fifty years ago, we should not allow nostalgia to entrap us. Instead of simply restoring the Voting Rights Act, which was tailored for the realities of fifty years ago, we need to assess where we stand today.
In the 21st century, new obstacles, such as voter ID laws, have been employed to keep black Americans, as well as Latinos, from voting, and it is essential new legislation addresses those specifics.
If we insist on re-living the past, without adapting to the present and the future, we will never reach that day when the Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments of the Constitution, giving us all the right to vote, regardless of race and gender, will be enough to protect everyone’s right to vote.
Ronda Racha Penrice is the author of African American History For Dummies. Follow her on Twitter @rondaracha.