Why getting out the vote is so bloody important

Voter suppression has a long history in the United States. I am reading The Race Beat: the Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff. The book is at once gripping, appalling, and casts a clear light over the current election. All indications are that on Tuesday African-Americans will vote in record numbers. It has been a long, long road.

In 1868 there were 86,973 registered African-American voters in Mississippi representing 56% of that state’s voting population.1 They were able to send two black senators to Washington: Hiram Revels and Blanche Bruce. But by 1892, following legislation specifically aimed at preventing African-Americans voting, numbers dropped to 8,922 or 11% of the voting population and there were no more black Mississippi senators.2

By 1955, after decades of legislation, poll taxes, and voter intimidation that went all the way up to murder, the number of African-Americans registered to vote in Mississippi was less than 5%. In some counties, even ones with a minority white population, the number of African-Americans registered to vote was zero.

In that same year, 1955, Gus Courts and Rev. George W. Lee set out to register voters in Humphreys County. Of the 16,00 eligible African-Americans, they persuaded 400 to pay their poll tax. Ninety-four went on to register. A process involving repeated visits to the registrar’s office because over and over again the office claimed to be too busy to process their forms.

Then George Lee was murdered. The number of registered voters in Humphreys County dropped to 22:

    Gus Courts was warned that if any of the 22 walked onto the courthouse lawn to vote they would be killed. They gathered in his store that morning and made a decision: they had not resisted the pressure that long only to crumble on election day. They walked to the courthouse, where each was handed a sheet of paper containing ten questions. “Do you want your children to go to school with white children?” was one. “Are you a member of or do you support the NAACP?” was another. County officials would not permit them to vote.

That’s 1955: only fifty-three years ago. Well within living memory. But then efforts to stop African-Americans and other minorities from voting did not stop in 1955. They continued to battle to exercise their right to vote throughout the 1950s and 1960s. That battle continues in different forms today.

This year the number of registered voters in Mississippi increased by more than 130,000. A large percentage of the new registrations are African-American. Those statistics are being repeated all over the country. Even here in NYC I know people who will be voting for the very first time. That’s a large part of why this election is so historic and so riveting. Not just because of who is running, but because of who is voting.

  1. Remembering that women could not vote. []
  2. To date there have only been five African-American senators. []


  1. Emily on #

    i didnt know that.

  2. john cash on #

    In re the franchise: We also forget that the right to vote also means the right to run for office. Don’t just vote; run!

  3. Judith on #

    Hi Justine,

    I wonder if you have had any discussion with your USian friends about Australia’s compulsory voting. I recently posted on open salon my perspective, as a leftie Aussie, on the US election, and had a spirited discussion in the comments about the merits or otherwise of compulsory voting (which for the record, I am all for). And related to that–do your USian friends have any opinions on why a nation so hell-bent on imposing democracy on the rest of the world (OK, their GOVERNMENT has been so hell-bent…) is so sanguine about the way so many of its own citizens are actively discouraged and even prevented from voting?

    And why isn’t there more activism around this enormous problem of institutionalised disenfranchisement?

    I’ve been mighty puzzled about this for some time, but never more so in the past weeks.


    Judith, who is not US-bashing but wants to know

  4. Judith on #

    Oops, sorry–just found that you’d blogged about this just recently. Must check my feedreader more frequently! But still, any further thoughts, I’d love to hear ’em.

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