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  • Throughout U.S. history, civil rights leaders past and present have fought to ensure that the freedom to vote is a fundamental right for everyone.  Civil rights icons such as Ida B. Wells, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Fannie Lou Hamer were instrumental in laying the foundation for securing and maintaining the right to vote for African Americans, culminating in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  However, the COVID-19 pandemic brought many changes to the voting process in 2020, and many new voting laws, raising new questions about the future of voting rights in the United States.  Dr. Keisha N. Blain, an award-winning historian and expert on the U.S. civil rights movement, provides a historical overview of icons of voting rights and the Voting Rights Act, while contextualizing their continuing relevance for contemporary voting rights issues today.  Her new book Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America, explores how Hamer’s ideas remain salient for a new generation of racial justice advocates. 


MODERATOR:  Good morning and welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center briefing Advancing Racial Equity: Icons of Voting Rights.  My name is Jen McAndrew and I am today’s moderator. 

Throughout U.S. history, civil rights leaders past and present have fought to ensure that the freedom to vote is a fundamental right for everyone.  Civil rights icons such as Ida B. Wells, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Fannie Lou Hamer were instrumental in laying the foundation for securing and maintaining the right to vote for African Americans, culminating in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  

Our briefer today, Dr. Keisha N. Blain, is an award-winning historian and expert on the U.S. Civil Rights Movement.  She will provide a historical overview of icons of voting rights and the Voting Rights Act while contextualizing their continuing relevance for contemporary voting rights issues today.  Her new book, Until I am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America, explores how Hamer’s ideas remain salient for a new generation of racial justice advocates. 

And now for the ground rules.  This briefing is on the record, and the views expressed by briefers not affiliated with the Department of State are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of State or the U.S. Government.  Participation in Foreign Press Center programming does not imply endorsement, approval, or recommendation of their views.  Our briefer will give opening remarks and then we will open it up for questions. 

And with that, I will pass it over to our briefer.  Professor Blain, over to you. 

MS BLAIN:  Thank you so much.  Thank you to all of you for being here.  I will share my screen so that you will be able to see several photos and a few quotes that I’ll be addressing in today’s remarks. 

I will be discussing icons in the fight for voting rights.  The Voting Rights Act is a landmark piece of federal legislation in the United States that prohibits racial discrimination in voting.  Along with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, the passage of the Voting Rights Act represents one of the most critical developments in United States history.  It fundamentally expanded black political rights and helped to overturn decades of restrictive policies that kept black people away from the ballot box, which brought the United States one step closer to becoming an inclusive democracy.   

While the Voting Rights Act itself was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965, it was in fact decades in the making, and it was only possible because of the mass political organizing that occurred throughout the United States.  A diverse group of activists advocating for black voting rights and political rights in general effectively laid the groundwork for the passage of the Voting Rights Act.  As they pointed out, voting rights are an imperative for a citizen to participate in a democracy.  Yet, for decades, non-white people and women were restricted from having access to voting. 

My presentation today centers on the experiences of black people in this country.  I will provide a brief overview of some of the icons of the long Civil Rights Movement to highlight the many strategies and tactics that black people employed to ensure that they would have full access to the vote.  It is impossible to cover every single icon in today’s presentation, and it would still be impossible to do so if I were offering a 15-week course on the subject, but I have decided to focus on a few key activists and thinkers from different time periods to highlight the richness and diversity of the history. 

The fight for black voting rights began in the 18th Century in the aftermath of the American Revolution.  The rhetoric around the liberty that guided the war helped to usher in a number of laws that abolished slavery in the newly formed northern states.  In the aftermath of the American Revolution, black people took advantage of this political climate and publicly advocated for equal rights.   

In Massachusetts, for example, Elizabeth Freeman used – ultimately sued for her freedom on the basis that the state constitution guaranteed black people equal rights.  She won her case in 19 – in 1781.   

The fight for equal rights continued, and by the early 19th Century black people in the United States had devised a range of strategies and tactics to challenge their exclusion from various aspects of society.  Black churches in particular provided crucial spaces for black people to organize and call for expanded political and citizenship rights.  And you’re looking at a photo of Jarena Lee, who I wanted to highlight as one of the key figures in this period, who was a preacher. 

During the early 19th Century, black men were allowed to vote in elections in some parts of the North.  However, they were quickly prohibited by – from voting by state legislatures.  And by 1820, it was clear that voting as a right for citizens of the United States would only be extended to white men. With these challenges, black Americans began to seek out new opportunities to participate in political life.  And so in addition to black churches, what also emerged in this time period is what we talk about as the national convention movement.     

In 1830, several black leaders, including Bishop Richard Allen of Philadelphia, came together to launch the first convention to bring together black leaders from around the nation to address the political turmoil that was taking place in cities across the nation, and particularly they focused on a lot of the hostility that free black communities faced in the North.  This first session, which took place in Philadelphia, launched a national convention movement that would ultimately lead to nearly annual conventions throughout the North and also throughout the Midwest, a practice that continued after the Civil War as black Americans received broader political rights.   

These conventions provided a crucial space to discuss a number of concerns, including slavery, education, and voting rights.  They also served as an outlet for black leaders to debate the issues facing black communities.  Also it was a space to provide – propose solutions and to create connections with other activists and abolitionists.  These conventions really were connected to the broader abolitionist movement, which was essentially a coalition of leaders from various racial backgrounds who were committed to opposing slavery in the United States.  And also this included some folks who openly supported slave insurrections.   

But one of the most prominent leaders in the abolitionist movement at the time is someone who I think most people would have heard of, and this is Frederick Douglass.  Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in Maryland in 1818, but escaped slavery, and did so in 1838 with the help of Anna Murray, a free black woman who Douglass would later marry.  After settling in Massachusetts, Douglass joined the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society in 1841 and two years later attended his first national convention.   

He was an outspoken advocate for black suffrage, a cause he advanced before, during, and after the Civil War.  And in April of 1865, Douglass delivered a very famous and important speech entitled “What the Black Man Wants.”  He delivered the speech to the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society in which he skillfully connected the themes of citizenship, political violence, and the right to vote.  His career as a voting rights advocate led to his embrace of universal suffrage in which he called for voting rights to be extended to everyone – to men as well as to women. 

And after the Civil War, the era of Reconstruction focused on what place the newly emancipated population would have in American society.  Reconstruction, which lasted from 1865 – the end of the Civil War – to around 1877 marked one of the most promising yet turbulent periods of U.S. history.  During Reconstruction, African American men and women enjoyed several opportunities and political advancements.  Among other things, this was the period that opened up opportunities for black men to serve as elected officials.  With the access to the vote, African American voters during this period elected the nation’s first black senators, representatives, lieutenant governors, and state representatives.   

The passage of the Reconstruction Amendments was vital in this regard – and here I’m speaking about three – the first being the 13th Amendment, which was ratified in 1865, which abolished legal slavery in the United States; the second, the 14th Amendment, which was ratified in 1868, and this conferred birthright citizenship, ultimately recognizing that citizenship applied to any individual born in the United States regardless of their race.  This was a very important development which overturned the Dred Scott decision of 1857, in which Chief Justice Roger Taney had insisted that black people, quote, “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”  And the third of the Reconstruction Amendments being the 15th Amendment, which granted black men the right to vote. 

And so during Reconstruction, what’s interesting is that there were so many opportunities particularly for black men to serve in office, but it was also a key moment for black women who were at the front lines of the struggle for voting rights.  We see this, for example, through the life of activist and author Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, who in 1866 – just one year after the Civil War – attended the 11th National Women’s Rights Convention in New York City, where she demanded equal rights for all women.   

Her words delivered at the convention captured the essence of her political vision.  She told the mostly white audience, quote, “I do not believe that giving the woman the ballot is immediately going to cure all of the ills of life.  You white women speak here of rights.  I speak of wrongs.”  And so she wanted to draw attention to the particular challenges that black people are facing in this country and to make a case that if you’re going to talk about the expansion of voting rights for women, you cannot overlook what black people were going through. 

And so Reconstruction as a period was an opportunity for the federal government to begin the process of righting those wrongs, and indeed this was a period that helped to redefine African American status in the nation from that of nonpersons – previously viewed as property under slavery – to that of full citizens with access to electoral politics and the same equal opportunities granted to white people.   

However, Reconstruction was short-lived, as white supremacists used violence to bar black Americans from the ballot box and to penalize them for exercising their rights as citizens of the U.S.  Radical Republicans, who was the faction of the Republican Party at the time that strongly opposed slavery, also failed to offer protection for black people.  And in the end, President Rutherford Hayes abandoned Reconstruction in 1877 when he pulled federal troops out of the South, thereby stripping African Americans of political and legal protections. 

And so by the early 20th century, the national dialogue on voting rights had in many ways shifted toward a conversation about women’s suffrage, all the while overlooking African Americans and other people of color.  And we see this particularly in 1913, when the National American Women’s Suffrage Association plans this parade for women’s suffrage in D.C.  And Alice Paul, the leader of the organization, had promoted the idea of including black women in the march, but ultimately made a decision to segregate the march.  And so she allowed black women to join the march, but only as part of a delegation – of an all-black delegation that would march toward the back.  And this, of course, as you can imagine, was something which caused a lot of frustration.  I mean, in fact, several prominent black women who attended the march openly spoke out about this act, including Mary Church Terrell who you see here.   

And one person in particular was quite vocal and decided to show how angry she was about the – well, in this case, the segregation of black women at the march, and this was none other than Ida B. Wells, who was an anti-lynching crusader and one of the most significant early civil rights activists.  Born in Mississippi in 1862, Ida B. Wells went on to become the editor and co-owner of a local newspaper.  She was in fact one of the founders of the NAACP, and through the 19th century she played a key role in demanding implementation of federal policies that would protect black people from lynchings.   

She attends this march in 1913 in D.C. because of her commitment to expanding women’s rights and her commitment to voting rights in particular.  She expressed her dissatisfaction with the placement of black women at the back of the march and made the bold decision to leave the segregated position.  After some struggle, she was able to march with the white delegation representing the state of Illinois, and two other black women who were present at the march followed in her example.   

Only a few years later, after Ida B. Wells took this bold stance at the march in D.C., Fannie Lou Hamer was born, and she was born October the 6th, 1917 in Webster County, Mississippi.  Fannie Lou Hamer grew up in the rural Mississippi Delta and she was far removed from the suffragist battles that led to the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, which gave women the right to vote.  She was one of 20 children, the youngest in fact, and she was born into a sharecropping family where her parents performed odd jobs to help make ends meet.  And from an early age, Hamer learned that her family had to take action to survive.  To really deal with the economic conditions of Mississippi in particular, Hamer had to come up with strategies.   

And just to give context about Hamer endured and what black people were facing, in Mississippi by 1960, 75 percent of all families in the Delta were living below the federal poverty line of $3,000 per year.  The economic conditions matched the lack of political power held by black Mississippians during this period.  And so it’s not surprising to take a look at the statistics from this moment to see that only 5 percent of Mississippi’s black residents were registered to vote.  Five percent of an estimated 450,000 black people in the state of Mississippi could not vote.  And the reasons they could not vote is because they were being blocked and they were being blocked intentionally.  White supremacists were using violence and intimidation to keep black people from the polls, as well as there were a number of state policies which kept black people from the vote, such as literacy tests.   

And Hamer ends up enduring this, ends up experiencing the way that black people are blocked from exercising their right to vote, and she finds this out in 1962.  In August of ’62, at the age of 44, she learns for the first time that she has the right to vote as a citizen of the United States.  And she finds this out when she attends a mass meeting that was organized by activists in a group called the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.  And at this meeting, Hamer decided to join the movement.  She also volunteered to attempt to register to vote.  And at the end of the meeting, Hamer along with 17 other residents of Sunflower County, Mississippi all got together to plan this trip in which they would travel to Indianola, the county seat, in order to attempt to register to vote.   

And that experience makes it clear to Hamer why in fact only 5 percent of Mississippi’s black residents were registered to vote.  Immediately they encounter resistance from local police.  When they arrive at the courthouse, they were directed to take literacy tests.  And in this case, Hamer struggled to answer questions, very specific questions, about the state constitution.  It’s important to note that Hamer had a sixth-grade education.  She did not have much access to formal education.  And as I noted, it was not until she was 44 years old that she even learned that she had the right to vote.  So she certainly struggled with the test, but that’s the point of the literacy test.  It was meant as a strategy to keep people from exercising the right to vote.   

She was unsuccessful in this initial attempt, but ultimately it was the first of many – of several attempts that followed in which Hamer tried to register to vote in order to make it clear that she would simply not accept the fact that she, as well as other black people in this day, were being excluded from this right.  And Hamer encounters yet another difficult experience when she attempts to register to vote.  When she returns home, the white landowner on the plantation where she worked gave her an ultimatum and told her that she had a choice.  She would have to either withdraw her registration or be evicted from her home and lose the only source of income for her family.  Hamer refused to back down, and she walked away from that plantation and decided to dedicate her life wholly to activism and to helping others in the fight for voting rights. 

But Hamer’s experience is yet another way that we see how in this period white people work to block people – to block African Americans from the ballot box through intimidation, through violence, and in this case just – to give to someone an option to say you can either attempt to vote or you can have the means to take care of your families, it’s a very difficult decision and an unfair option to present to anyone.  But Hamer decided that, in fact, the vote was far more important, and it meant that she spent the rest of her life struggling to make ends meet. 

In 1963, Hamer is traveling yet again with activists in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and they stop at a rest stop.  They’re coming from South Carolina after leading a voting registration workshop, and they stop in Winona, Mississippi.  It’s a rest stop; several people have to use the restroom.  And Hamer endures a brutal beating, because what happens is she leaves the bus, comes off of the bus when she notices that several of her friends are being attacked and beaten by police officers.  And in leaving the bus to find out what was going on, police officers grabbed her, started beating her, arrested her as well as the other activists, took them to a local prison cell, and there Hamer endured a brutal beating which left her with a blood clot in her eye, damage to her kidney, and worsened a limp which Hamer had since childhood. 

And Hamer decides to talk about these experiences to make it clear to Americans this is what black people are facing.  The group of activists were brutally beaten simply because they were attempting to register black people to vote.  Hamer shares her experience at the Democratic National Convention on behalf of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which is a group that she helped to establish, and she does this in 1964.  Her speech is so influential, it’s so dynamic – ultimately captures the attention of everyone who’s listening.  She accounts the brutal beating in Winona, she talks about all of the harassment and intimidation, and she testifies to the truth of what she had experienced living in Mississippi. 

The speech is in fact so powerful that it terrifies the president of the United States.  President Lyndon B. Johnson decides to interrupt Hamer’s speech and holds an impromptu press conference in order to divert attention away from Hamer’s speech.  But he’s not successful, because the speech is later aired on national TV and people are ultimately moved by it. 

Hamer’s passionate speech set in motion a series of events that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  Her address, combined with a nationwide protest led by black activists, ultimately compelled Lyndon B. Johnson to introduce federal legislation that banned local laws like literacy tests which blocked African Americans from the ballot box.  The act also placed – put in place restriction on how certain states could implement new election laws.  Of course, those restrictions have now since been curtailed. 

The Voting Rights Act significantly bolstered black political participation in the South, and in Mississippi alone the number of African Americans registered to vote dramatically increased from 28,000 to approximately 280,000 following its passage.  In the aftermath of the Voting Rights Act, the number of black elected officials in the South more than doubled from 72 to 159 following the 1966 elections.  And so clearly the Voting Rights Act was significant and remains a significant piece of federal legislation, which has opened up the door for so many to participate in voting in the United States. 

As you know, since its passage in 1965, the Voting Rights Act has been under attack.  The fight to protect it remains ongoing.  Thank you for listening. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you, Dr. Blain, for that excellent overview of this critical history.  We will now begin the Q&A portion of today’s briefing.  As a reminder, if you have a question, you can raise your hand using the “raise hand” button or submit your question in the chat field.   

So I will just start off with a – one question, Dr. Blain.  The COVID-19 pandemic brought many changes to the way Americans voted in the 2020 election and raised new questions about the future of voting rights.  Recently new legislation has been proposed in Congress and in state legislatures.  Looking ahead to the 2022 midterm elections, can you speak to the future of voting rights and why new legislation is needed today? 

MS BLAIN:  Yes.  Thank you for that question.  The future remains uncertain.  I certainly do think that – I’m hopeful, but the future remains uncertain, because what is clear is since the Shelby decision of 2013, we have witnessed a number of statewide laws that continue to strip away from the Voting Rights Act.  And so many of these strategies to make it difficult for not only black people, but for other people of color, for other marginalized groups to be able to exercise their right to vote, all of these very much mirror the kinds of challenges that Hamer and others like her faced in Mississippi in the 1960s.   

And so what is unfortunate is that we have made – we have made great progress at the same time we are now taking steps back.  And Shelby, I think, was a clear moment where we saw that, ultimately, we cannot simply continue to celebrate the Voting Rights Act without protecting the Voting Rights Act.   

I think right now the efforts to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act in particular is an attempt to restore the state voting requirements that ultimately prohibit racial discrimination.  I mean, that was one of the most important aspects of the Voting Rights Act, and that was struck down in 2013 by the Supreme Court.  So the effort to restore those requirements will make a difference.  And as we know, it is a long fight already.  This attempt has not been successful.  I certainly know that there is a lot of momentum around the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, but it – we still have a long way to go.  So I remain hopeful, but the future is uncertain. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you for that response.  I don’t see any hands raised or questions submitted in the chat box, so with that, we will conclude today’s briefing.  And on behalf of the Washington Foreign Press Center, I’d like to thank Professor Blain for giving her time today to brief the foreign press.  Thank you and good morning. 

MS BLAIN:  Thank you. 

U.S. Department of State

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