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What’s the longest war in American history? Fighting for the right to vote

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“No, Gertrude, you can’t go. I might not make it back, and somebody has to stay here and raise these girls.” 

With those words, my grandfather, farmer James DeWitt Rhoden, left his wife and two daughters in the late 1930s and set off for downtown Quitman, Texas to vote.

He knew that his mission could end his life. As he mounted the tall steps of the Wood County courthouse, a crowd of hostile white men closed in behind him.

{mosads}”DeWitt! Where do you think you’re going?” He never turned around.  


Perhaps because they knew he wouldn’t go down alone, my grandfather was allowed to cast his vote and return home to his family. Decades later, my mother (his daughter) related this story to me.

History may record that the longest war in the history of the United States was neither the Vietnam War nor the war in Afghanistan, but the ongoing war against disenfranchisement, which is the denial of the right to vote.

History has also shown us that lynching and other forms of vigilantism were leveled at blacks who attempted to vote.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened in Montgomery, Alabama recently to showcase the extent and horror of lynching. What from a distance appears to be jars of colorful spices is actually a display of soil from the sites of more than 4,000 lynchings. 

This display is paired with 800 six-foot blocks engraved with names of victims of this brutal practice. Some of those names were of African Americans lynched for having the temerity to vote.

The continuing battle to deny the constitutional right to vote to certain groups is both ever-changing and never ending. In the year of the 50th anniversary of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s murder, the cause for which he sacrificed so much, is still under constant attack.

Attacks on many fronts target the rights of minorities, immigrants and felons, as they are touted as patriotic attempts to preserve the sanctity of the voting booth. As we approach midterm elections this fall, thousands of eligible voters are inconvenienced or disenfranchised by legislative dirty tricks meant to deprive them of their legal rights. 

Those convicted of felonies lose their voting rights as a matter of course. Although there are pathways for most to regain their rights once their sentences are exhausted, this information is seldom shared.

A recent Texas case has resulted in a five-year prison sentence for a woman who attempted to vote while on community supervision parole after serving a previous sentence.

Neither the poll worker who checked her in, nor her federal parole officer, informed her that she was ineligible. In an ironic twist, four white citizens of Dallas have filed suit alleging that they are being discriminated against due to redistricting.

States like Florida and Alabama are engaged in determined efforts to deprive former felons to restoration of voting rights. These efforts disproportionately target African Americans, who are convicted in greater percentages than representation in the population.

Though voting rights for African Americans were codified in 1965 through hard-fought legislation, maintaining those rights requires constant vigilance. But today if you’re not “the right kind” of voter, efforts are constantly underway to make it inconvenient, if not impossible, to cast your ballot.

These efforts at disenfranchisement have their pedigree in the states’ rights arguments of old. Rather than eliminating voting rights for large segments of the population at the federal level, Republican legislators and governors have chosen to eviscerate them via vicious cuts at the state level.  

These actions were facilitated by Shelby County v. Holder, the 2013 Supreme Court decision striking down Section 4, a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. That section had required nine southern states to obtain pre-clearance before making substantive changes to voting procedures, such as redrawing district lines or relocating polling places.

With these restrictions eliminated, states were free to make unfettered changes that would virtually disenfranchise thousands. The war entered a new front.

This modern siege is far more insidious than literacy tests and poll taxes. On their faces, these actions might seem nothing more than reasonable, race-neutral policies that can hardly be questioned. Yet the effects are specific and damaging.

Many of these voter suppression efforts center on requirements for photo ID that might be difficult to obtain for minorities, the elderly, disabled or students. In Texas, new requirements for photo ID eliminated student identification cards but added a Texas Handgun License.

Several states now requiring state-issued photo ID cards, typically obtained at the Department of Motor Vehicles, have closed those facilities in some urban areas, making access more difficult. 

Notable among these is Alabama, whose restrictions and subsequent shuttering of Department of Motor Vehicles offices was so controversial, the action triggered an investigation.

College students face particular challenges, as states enact restrictions that threaten their constitutional right to vote by complicating the definition of “home,” whether it is on-campus housing or their parents’ home.

Students are tasked with learning the laws of the state where they attend school. The tactics range from barely legal to actually threatening. New Hampshire has a storied history of voter intimidation of students, having once attempted to disenfranchise students who did not promise to continue to reside in the state after graduation.

And early in 2018, legislators voted along party lines to enact what is essentially a poll tax by requiring college students to have a New Hampshire-issued state ID and to register their cars in the state, actions which potentially cost hundreds of dollars each year.

These efforts at voter suppression have inspired a new wave of activism aimed at nullifying the efforts toward disenfranchisement. Several states have taken proactive steps to increase voter registration and turnout, with efforts ranging from automatic and same-day registration to restoring voting rights to felons.

A new generation of young activists has taken up arms against suppressive tactics of a determined enemy. The nationwide Electoral Justice Project and BlackPAC movements were organized to join the war against disenfranchisement. Their tactics are both energized and creative, with many young Black activists recently using the premiere of “The Black Panther” movie as an opportunity to register voters. 

On the day my grandfather cast his vote in Quitman, according to my mother, word was that another local black man was murdered for trying to vote that day. But it was not DeWitt Rhoden, who would become one of the most successful businessmen in Wood County. He was the grandfather I adored. And, like him, I am a soldier in this war.

Anga L. Sanders was a Democratic precinct chair in Dallas, Texas where she was deputized to register voters and recently assembled and moderated a panel of young Black female voting rights activists. She is a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.

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