Stand Up For Your Rights

10 June 2015

Ethnic Studies | History

It was on the 11th of this month in 1963 that John F. Kennedy gave his civil rights speech in which he asked for legislation which would give ‘greater protection for the right to vote’. In November, the bill was referred to the Rules Committee where it was quickly dismissed. Later that month, Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, told legislators in his first address that ‘no memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honour President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long.’ The Civil Rights Act was finally enacted on July 2nd 1964, bringing to an end the unequal application of voter registration rights.

Written on 22 June 1901, Giles Jackson of Virginia’s Negro Business League constructed a letter to the Commissioner of Revenue of Virginia. In this letter, Jackson requested information on black businessmen in Virginia, asking for ‘the names and as near as you can the post-office addresses of all the colored people engaged in business [and] how much the colored people pay to the state in the way of taxes on deeds’. It was with this information that the organisation hoped to conclude which African Americans would be qualified to vote under the proposed constitution. An appeal would then be made to the convention not to limit black suffrage.



Giles B. Jackson to R.C. Burrow, June 22, 1901. Â© The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

This letter was written in response to a constitutional convention to draft election reforms which, without violating the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments of the US Constitution, aimed to disenfranchise African Americans. In order to achieve this, delegates considered poll taxes and literacy tests as requirements for voting. The convention was fervently supported by the Democrats who added to previous efforts and aimed to achieve widespread disenfranchisement by law.  Indeed, between 1873 and 1883, a series of decisions made by the US Supreme Court set back former federal efforts to protect the civil rights of African Americans.

1896 saw the Supreme Court sanction legal separation of the races in its ruling in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, which triggered renewed enthusiasm for the propagation of ‘Negro inferiority’. While previously guaranteed protection until 1957, African Americans in the south now found themselves exposed to groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, who reinforced white supremacy by beating, lynching and burning homes. Racial violence again reigned over the US, manifesting itself in race riots, the worst of which took place in Springfield, Illinois, in the year of 1908.

The implications of disenfranchisement were far reaching. The Republican Party faced near elimination in the region, while Southern Democrats managed to establish a one-party system which exercised extensive legislative power. In Congress, the Democratic South also gained nearly twenty-five extra seats between 1903 and 1953, while due to the lack of a two-party system southern Senators and Representatives enjoyed leadership of the national Democratic Party. Further problems occurred during the Great Depression, when social programs established by legislation caused gaps in coverage due to the absence of African American representation. Only in 1964, following the passage of the Civil Rights Act, did disenfranchisement finally come to an end.

Module 2 Civil War, Reconstruction and the Modern Age: 1860-1945 of American History, 1493-1945: From the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History is released today. Full access restricted to authenticated academic institutions who have purchased a licence.

About the Author

Sarah Madsen

Sarah Madsen

Since joining the editorial team at Adam Matthew in September 2014, I have been given the opportunity to work on a variety of fascinating projects, including part two of ‘American History, 1493-1945’ and ‘African American Communities’. I particularly enjoy using my degree, as well as broadening my knowledge on a daily basis.