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Push Me Down, and I'll Get Right Back Up!


Neda tries to gain some political power at the Old State Capitol in Atlanta.
Neda tries to gain some political power at the Old State Capitol in Atlanta.

The one thing I will say for the Southern white legislators is that they were creative. They were horribly racist and terribly discriminatory, but they were brilliantly creative. It must have taken a lot of imagination to come up with the various methods they used to keep African-Americans from voting.

The Reconstruction period immediately following the Civil War provided an opportunity for African-Americans to participate in society for the first time. One of the reasons minorities were able to participate in politics during Reconstruction was that even though the war had ended, the South was still under occupied by federal troops from the North. Once these troops were withdrawn, the disfranchisement (taking away the vote) of African-Americans started up with a vengeance. This is when the Southern whites began using their imaginations to close doors on equality just as they seemed as though they were finally opening.


How did they go about doing this? How did they get around making a law that blatantly forbid African-Americans to vote? Here are some ways:

  • Literacy tests. This sounds pretty straightforward, right? A test to see if a person can read and write before they are allowed to vote. Oh, but this would not be sneaky enough for our imaginative legislators. They made the literacy tests so difficult, that not even the people who gave them could pass. Yet, the same standards were not used for whites who were given other tests if they owned property or were "of good character."

  • "Grandfather clauses." Many states made a rule that only those men whose fathers or grandfathers had registered prior to 1866 would be able to vote without having to worry about any literacy or property requirements. Now, let's think about this. Do you think that many African-American men would have been allowed to vote before the end of the Civil War? The chances are slim to none.

  • Poll taxes. The tax was a fee for the privilege of voting. It had the biggest impact on blacks, who were disproportionately poorer than whites.

With the addition of intimidation and violence, by the turn of the century, the number of minority voters had dropped so dramatically that they could not meaningfully participate in United States politics.

Booker T. delivers the Atlanta Compromise
Booker T. delivers the Atlanta Compromise

The country was at a crossroads yet again. There was conflict between the whites' demand for segregation and the African-Americans' demand for political and civil equality.

Out of this, a man named Booker T. Washington offered a compromise. He urged African-Americans to forget about politics and instead focus on economic power because he believed that African-Americans should learn skills to help them become farmers or mechanics. This way they could earn money and become self-reliant.

Neda stands firm in Atlanta… no compromises here!
Neda stands firm in Atlanta… no compromises here!

At first, Booker T's speech was a hit, both among blacks and whites. People were cheering him on in the streets, but slowly, critics started to appear. One of the harshest critics was a black man named W.E.B Du Bois. He believed that Booker T. was foolish to think that Blacks could earn as much money as whites without more help from the government. He insisted that African-Americans needed to continue to fight for their civil rights before they would see any improvements.

W.E.B's movement led to the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which was set up to do exactly that. Yet, despite all the efforts, it wasn't until 1965 (that's right--only 35 years ago!), that Congress passed the Voting Rights Act to help protect the rights of African-Americans and other minorities in the voting process.

Where are we at today? Nationally, 64 percent of blacks are registered to vote compared with 69 percent of whites. A gap still exists, but it's definitely a huge improvement.

Tonie and the NAACP at the University of Memphis have been doing some great things!
Tonie and the NAACP at the University of Memphis have been doing some great things!

Luckily, there are people out there trying to close the gap even further, like Tonie Johnson, whom Stephanie and I met at the University of Memphis chapter of the NAACP. Earlier this semester, her NAACP chapter put on the Race to Vote, a series of events to teach people about the struggle African-Americans endured to get voting rights, and the reasons why using your voice is so important. As we have learned in the past month with our presidential elections, every vote really does count!


Please email me at: neda@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Neda - Assassination, ballot box stuffing, and eating in the bathroom: it's American politics!
Stephanie - Segregation and how the South kept its evil ways