Black History Month Highlighted: 2020-African Americans and the Vote
Just because February is over, it doesn’t mean Black History is over. Every day is Black History with something to learn, reflect on, or shape into future history well beyond February. Black history in the U.S. has an interesting beginning that goes all the way back to the end of the Civil War and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment and Juneteenth, which abolished slavery in 1865.
Five years later, in 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment was passed, which granted the right to vote to men of color. Shortly thereafter, African American men were making their way into politics, including winning several offices in southern states and even being elected to the U.S. Congress.
Then, back in the fall of 1915, Carter G. Woodson and other prominent African American leaders formed the ASHLH, now called the ASALH (African American Life and History) group. This group decided to sponsor the first Negro History Week the second week in February 1926, which just so happened to also take place during Abraham Lincoln’s and Frederick Douglass’ birthdays.
The purpose of Negro History Week was to educate people of all backgrounds about the richness and diversity of Black history. There were lectures, performances, and all types of local celebrations.
How Did Black History Month Come About?
After the first Negro History Week in 1926, many cities across the nation decided to start holding annual Negro History Weeks. Eventually, the movement expanded to the state and federal levels, in part due to the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and the African American Woman Suffrage Movement.
Even though women were granted the right to vote with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, many women of color found it difficult to exercise their right to vote freely without being harassed. It wasn’t until the 1960s that Black women finally were able to register and vote more freely.
These events set into motion a growing movement of Black History. While Negro History Week continued to be celebrated across the country, colleges and universities began dedicating the entire month of February to Black History.
As such, students, faculty, staff, and their families were able to celebrate the life and legacy of movements, African Americans, and those who were helping to shape the future of Black History. In 1976, President Gerald Ford finally expanded Negro History Week into Black History Month, encouraging everyone to reflect on the frequently neglected accomplishments of African Americans and honor them and their accomplishments to not just Black History, but to history in general.
Why Was the Theme for 2020 African Americans and the Vote
The theme for 2020 was selected to honor the passing of the Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments. The year 2020 is the sesquicentennial and centennial for these two Amendments, respectively.
For many African Americans, even with the passage of these two Amendments, the right to vote only existed on paper. In the South, in the 1890s, a series of new laws and restrictions were passed which came to be known as the Jim Crow Laws. These laws were meant to make it difficult for Black men and, eventually, women to vote.
What Were the Jim Crow Laws?
The Jim Crow Laws were the establishment of racism and segregation in southern states from the 1890s that lasted until the mid-1960s. Under these laws, African Americans were segregated and oppressed in all aspects of social life.
From segregated drinking fountains to being forced to ride in the back of a bus, this way of life could be found everywhere in the South. Parts of the Jim Crow Laws were even designed to deny Black people the right to vote.
Some of the restrictions on voting included things like only allowing White people to vote in primaries, requiring Black voters to pass literacy tests, and charging Black voters poll taxes to vote. Some African Americans were also denied the right to vote if their ancestors had been allowed to vote before the Civil War.
Essentially, Jim Crow Laws enabled southern states the right to disregard the Constitution and Amendments that gave rights to African Americans. Sadly, any African Americans who challenged Jim Crow Laws could find their lives turned upside down.
They risked their families, their life, their jobs, and even their homes. They could be publicly humiliated, beaten, or killed, and had no recourse whatsoever. Eventually, movements began led by the likes of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis, Malcolm X, Bayard Rustin, and others.
This was the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, which included the Freedom Rides of 1961 and the March on Washington in 1963. Eventually, the U.S. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964.
The Civil Rights Act abolished segregation and discrimination. Then, in 1965, the Voting Rights Act was passed. This piece of legislation did away with literacy tests, poll taxes, and other restrictions that were created by the Jim Crow Laws.
However, even with these changes and, surprising to many, there are still some places in the South where Jim Crow Laws remain in effect that continue to cause difficulties for African Americans to register and vote—and that is just one of the ongoing struggles Black voters still face today.
Why Is the Theme African Americans and the Vote So Important in 2020?
Aside from the existence of Jim Crow Laws in certain states, another reason the theme is important for the 2020 presidential elections has to do with the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. Essentially, the Supreme Court overturned key provisions that the Voting Rights Act protected Black voters.
In Shelby County, Alabama, previously, they had to pass certain federal requirements to ensure voting was not restricted and there was no voting discrimination. However, with the ruling, Shelby County no longer must meet federal mandates and can do as it pleases. Accordingly, new local laws are being passed to make it harder for the elderly, Black people, Latinos, and other minorities to register and vote.
This is not just happening in Shelby County, either. All jurisdictions that previously had to meet federal mandates now no longer must, thanks to the Supreme Court ruling. This means that other areas that were under scrutiny are once again free to create restrictions, or even apply any old Jim Crow Laws that are still in effect.
As we reflect and look back on February’s celebration of Black History Month, while focusing on the accomplishments and achievements of African Americans, we should not forget those who came before, who fought, and who have died for equal rights and the right to vote.
For the upcoming election this fall, it is important for African Americans, Latinos, LGBTQ people, women, and other minorities to be heard locally and in Washington.
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