A June 2018 study conducted jointly by The Atlantic and the Public Religion Research Institute found that an increased number of racially-biased election laws, such as voter-ID legislation, threaten to disenfranchise African American and Latinx communities and effectively, erode the protections afforded them under full citizenship. With an estimated 21 million voters deprived of their Constitutional right to vote as the result of voter ID restrictions, roughly 14 million voters with disabilities were unable to cast a vote because voting centers were ill-equipped to accommodate their access; and an additional 16 million voters that live below the poverty line and identify as Democrat were unable to cast a vote because of polling closures, lack of alternatives to in-person voting, an inability to afford time off from work to vote, and a lack of transportation to polling locations.
However unconstitutional and unpatriotic these efforts appear, they represent a persistent attack against suffrage and citizenship — with origins birthed alongside the nation itself.
In fact, the open of this year’s Congressional Black Caucus Annual Legislative Conference comes just days removed from the historic anniversary of the implementation of The Grandfather Clause, Sept. 1, 1898. This dealt a crushing blow to African-American suffrage with the institution of literacy tests and poll taxes as a requirement to register to vote. It included an added addendum that restricted voting rights to those citizens whose grandfathers could not vote before 1867. The law, initially adopted in Louisiana, grew in popularity among eight other Southern states — Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, Tennessee, and Virginia — until they were struck down with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. With the specific lilt of the “Grandfather Clause,” even those African Americans who were literate and had funds to pay exorbitant poll fees, could still be denied access to the ballot. Simultaneously, this language provided illiterate and poor white men the means to legitimize their citizenship.
The spirit of the Grandfather Clause was alive and well in Ruleville, Mississippi in the 1960s when sharecropper and civil rights icon Fannie Lou Hamer attempted to register to vote and was viciously assaulted and jailed by white law enforcement — an attack which damaged one kidney, caused a blood clot in her left eye and left her with a permanent limp.
Speaking Aug. 22, 1964, before the Democratic National Convention, Hamer described an atmosphere of intimidation and violence against those who registered to vote, including being thrown off of sharecropping farms, effectively rendering Blacks homeless and jobless for exercising their rights. Hamer testified: “On the 10th of September 1962, sixteen bullets was fired into the home of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Tucker. That same night two girls were shot in Ruleville, Mississippi. Also, Mr. Joe McDonald’s house was shot in… All of this is on account of us wanting to register to become first-class citizens… Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave? Where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily? Because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?”
The CBCF works tirelessly to ensure African Americans are able to access and fully embrace their citizenship through the voting process. Let us, please utilize this conference as a think-tank, center of dialogue, and site of engagement to fight the resurrected spirits of the Grandfather’s Clause — and finally sound its necessary death knell.