This Juneteenth, will Congress finally ensure Black freedom?
On this Juneteenth, before Americans commemorate the news of Black emancipation, let’s ask what our nation’s leaders are doing to ensure the reality of African American freedom. Across the country on June 19, 2021, celebrations and observances will honor the occasion when the message of emancipation finally reached enslaved African Americans in Galveston, Texas.
For the record, these enslaved men and women received the news of freedom on June 19, 1865 — a full two and a half years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Today, 156 years later, with a mounting wave of voter suppression efforts, Congress can act to secure the full promise of African American freedom.
Our nation has always experienced the expansion and contraction of, or backlash toward, rights for African Americans each time Black men and women have begun to experience the benefits of freedom. Following the passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments in 1865 and 1870, increased political and economic opportunities available to freed black men in the South were quickly met with measures to prevent African Americans from exercising their right to vote.
White supremacists used a variety of means to secure “redemption” — to reimpose a white-dominated racial hierarchy in the South. State-sanctioned voter suppression combined with violent intimidation and organized terrorism to deny Black voting power. According to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, one Mississippi judge was quoted in 1890 explaining, “it is no secret that there has not been a full vote and a fair count in Mississippi since 1875 — that we have been preserving the ascendancy of the white people by revolutionary methods. In plain words we have been stuffing the ballot boxes, committing perjury, and … carrying the elections by fraud and violence…”
The Ku Klux Klan and racial terror lynchings ruthlessly intimidated the Black community, such that the gains of the 15th Amendment were all but eviscerated. According to Lynching in America, more than 4400 racial terror lynchings were carried out between Reconstruction and World War II.
Finally, as Supreme Court rulings chipped away at protections afforded under the Civil Rights Act of 1875 and the 14th Amendment, Southern states imposed “legal” rules such as literacy tests and poll taxes designed to limit Black registration and voting without violating the 15th Amendment. Jim Crow laws designed to disenfranchise, segregate, intimidate, imprison and impose racial hierarchy flourished throughout the South for nearly a century.
It was not until Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that literacy tests were suspended, a nationwide prohibition on denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race was declared, and the federal government was authorized to require jurisdictions with a history of discrimination in voting to seek pre-clearance before enacting any voting changes. As a result of the Voting Rights Act, the voter registration rates of African-Americans grew exponentially. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the voter registration gap between White and Black Americans in Alabama was reduced from 50 percent in 1965 to just 6 percent by 1988 and from 63 percent to 6 percent in Mississippi during that same period.
The parallels today to the eras of White Redemption and Jim Crow are haunting: We are in the midst of a period civil rights backlash and it’s reversal is not a foregone conclusion. Our nation’s political leaders must act to prevent our country from repeating the horrors of our past.
Despite a global pandemic, according to the Census Bureau, African American turnout in the November 2020 election increased by 3 points, up to 63 percent from 60 percent in 2016. Hispanic and Asian-American voters also boasted record-high turnout in 2020. The voting strength of people of color will only be felt in greater force in future elections as we are a path to becoming a majority “minority’ nation by 2040.
Against this backdrop 48 states have introduced 389 voter suppression bills and 14 states have passed 22 bills to restrict access to the vote. These bills do everything from eliminating “souls to the polls” and limiting early voting periods to ending no-excuse absentee balloting. Several bills tighten identification requirements for in-person voting.
Georgia passed an onerous bill that criminalizes offering comfort to those who stand in line for hours to vote. These measures are politically motivated by the desire of the Republican Party to regain control of Congress and the White House. And in my view they born out of racial anxiety of a growing minority electorate that delivers electoral victories. These voter suppression bills are steeped in racialized arguments of voter fraud and have recently combined with efforts to intimidate election officials with threats of violence. History is repeating itself.
Congress must act urgently to pass two critical voting rights reforms: S. 1 The For the People Act and HR 4 the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. The For the People Act is awaiting action in the Senate, and would block many of the state-level restrictions being proposed across the country, if it’s successfully passed. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would restore and update meaningful provisions of the Voting Rights Act requiring states with discriminatory voting changes get pre-clearance from the federal government before they can implement any voting changes.
Piecemeal measures will not do. Anything short of comprehensive voting rights protections aimed to empower voting access will not stem the wave of voter suppression taking place across the country.
Beyond Congress, we all have a role in fostering Black freedom. That is why civil rights organizations issued letters to Senate leadership urging passage of these vital voting rights reforms and advocacy groups like Fair Fight Action have launched the StopJimCrow2 grassroots campaign and the #StopJimCrow2 social media campaign to make it easy for everyday citizens to apply political pressure.
Forty-six states and the District of Columbia have moved to officially recognize Juneteenth as a holiday — and this week it became a federal holiday as well.
Reportedly, the City of Galveston will dedicate a mural, entitled “Absolute Equality,” on the spot where General Granger informed enslaved African Americans of their freedom.
Congress must mark this holiday by finally making good on the promise of Black freedom and passing comprehensive voting rights reform that will protect democracy for all for generations to come.
Alaina Beverly is a Democratic strategist, civil rights lawyer, racial equity expert and frequent MSNBC commentator.
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