The Second World War presented another opportunity for Black Americans to serve their country. African Americans have served in every major conflict that the United States has fought, and WWII saw over a million Black people join the armed services. Black units served admirably, they were still just that: Black units. A segregated armed forces represented the segregation still in place at home. And while the war effort itself was successful, not much was gained at home by the service of Black veterans abroad.
Following the Second World War, white America enjoyed its status as the world’s premier democratic superpower for the first time. The same prosperity brought by the rise of the consumer goods market and suburbanization was not enjoyed by people of color here, and frequently that distinction was purposeful. Expansion of federal school and housing loans through the G.I. Bill was inequitable, with some scholars estimating the percentage of white veterans who went to college with G.I. Bill funding was more than twice that of Black veterans(1). Increasing inequality led to increasing discontent, and by the mid-1950’s, a new Civil Rights movement was forming.
This new movement would be led by a new and diverse crop of pioneers, with wide ranging ideals. People like Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis and Gloria Richardson led groups across the country. Groups like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Nation of Islam, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Black Panthers, and many more formed to push for Black and brown rights. The aims of the groups and their various campaigns were as wide-ranging as worker’s rights, voting rights, civil rights, and pushing back on American involvement in Vietnam.
One of the greatest triumphs of this era’s civil rights movement was the 1965 passage of the Voting Rights Act. This created federal protections for voting rights for the first time, outlawing the disenfranchisement practices that were common across the country, particularly in the south. Immediately, southern states fought against the Act in the Supreme Court and lost. The impact of the 1965 law was swift. By the end of 1965, 250,000 new Black voters had registered, and by the end of the following year, only 4 of 13 southern states had Black registration rates lower than 50%(2). For example, Mississippi’s Black voter registration rate was 6.7% in 1965, but by 1967 that had jumped to 59.8%(3.) The Voting Rights Act was a clear victory in this struggle, and was strengthened in 1970, 1972, and 1982. However, even before this legislation was signed into law, the reactionary forces of white America were mustering.
Birmingham, Alabama, was one of the long-time focal points of the Civil Rights Movement. The Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56 was a seminal moment in the movement, and saw both Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr.’s stars rise as key figures. However, Birmingham also became the site of numerous acts of racial violence retaliating for the movement for human rights. In 1963, the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was bombed by four men involved with the Ku Klux Klan. This attack was in response to attempts to desegregate Birmingham, and it killed four young Black girls and permanently blinded another. By that time, retaliatory bombings in Birmingham were so common that the city was called “Bombingham” by some(4). The Congress of Racial Equality, a group formed to use nonviolence to engage in a campaign against segregation, had created a number of Freedom Schools across the south. These schools aimed to teach Black history and the philosophy of the Civil Rights movement. In 1964, founder James Farmer estimated that 38 of the schools were burned down across Mississippi. Nationally, Gallup polling in 1965 showed 42% of Americans felt the Federal government was moving too fast in guaranteeing “Negro” voting rights and desegregation of public spaces(5).
The violent backlash wasn’t only perpetrated by mobs and the KKK. State-sponsored violence was common. One of the more infamous incidents of the period is the brutal attacks on peaceful marchers near Selma, Alabama in March of 1965. As the demonstrators crossed the Edmund Pettis bridge,--named for a leader in the KKK who became a U.S. Senator-- Alabama State Police and deputized locals stopped the procession. The police force quickly began beating protesters with nightsticks and launching tear gas into the crowd. 17 marchers were hospitalized and more than 50 were injured. While the police attacked the protesters, white crowds gathered near the bridge and cheered on the assailants(6). Unfortunately, this remains one of many similar incidents.
An even more coordinated resistance was forming at the offices of the FBI. A program known as Counterintelligence Program, or Cointelpro was started in the mid-1950s, concurrent with the growth of the larger Civil Rights movement. Cointelpro was formed with the mission of combating “radical” groups in the US, and its practical application was to suppress the efforts of Black civil rights organizations, and the Black Panthers in particular(7). The FBI intended to use illegal surveillance and manipulation tactics to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize" any of their intended targets(8). A 1969 police raid on the Chicago apartment of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton was closely aided by FBI informants. The raid left two of the apartment’s occupants dead, including Hampton(9). The FBI also formally harassed Martin Luther King, Jr. After FBI Domestic Intelligence Chief William Sullivan declared the FBI should “mark [King] now...as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation,” the FBI began conducting surveillance on King. This surveillance culminated in an anonymous letter sent to King by the FBI in 1964, exposing extramarital affairs and urging King to kill himself instead of risking the destruction of his family because of these revelations(10).
The rightward shift of American politics in the last quarter of the 20th century cemented a number of ideological and physical institutions that support disenfranchisement either directly or indirectly. One of the most disastrous policies that has been supported by both major national parties here has been the expansion of the prison-industrial complex. Between 1975 and its peak in 2009, the American prison system saw a 700% increase in total prisoners, expanding from under 250,000 prisoners to over 1.5 million in 2009(11).
This expansion couples with extremely racialized policing and judicial practices to have a disproportionately brown prison population. As of 2015, Black people comprised about 12% of the US population but accounted for 18% of all citizens stopped by police. Black and Hispanic individuals are disproportionately recipients of police violence, accounting for over 40% of all incidents of police force. Black youth are particularly endangered, representing 17% of the youth population of the US but 35% of youth arrests. Beyond police encounters, the judicial system is equally unfair to people of color. Black people are jailed at over three times the per capita rate of their white peers, and those who are jailed are 1.5 times more likely to serve extreme sentences like life imprisonment(12). All of this creates a system where Black and brown people are over-policed and unfairly treated by a judicial system that is inclined to imprison them, and imprison them for longer.
The final step of this process harkens back to the era immediately following Reconstruction, where newly created state constitutions included clauses that allowed for disenfranchising individuals convicted of felonies. Many of these clauses still stand, and the population of disenfranchised felons has grown concurrently with the national prison population, and represents the same racial and class biases. An estimated 3.1 million people across the country can’t vote because of legal statutes that prohibit voting even after all aspects of a sentence have been served. Consistent with the racial disparities of the justice system at large, Black people are disenfranchised at four times the rate of other groups(13). As of 2016, nearly 1 in 13 Black adults couldn’t vote because of felon restrictions, and that ratio is 1 in 5 in four southern states(11). Without a doubt, the ghosts of slavery and post-Reconstruction are still haunting this country.
The evolution of voting rights for Indigenous peoples in this country has continued through the back half of the 20th century as well. The Voting Rights Act was key in expanding Native access to the franchise, and the 1970 expansion that outlawed literacy tests was particularly important. However, the modern landscape is complicated. The 2013 Supreme Court case Shelby County v. Holder has been a turning point in the story of American voting rights for many groups, and Native Americans have been particularly affected. The case was predicated on the question of the constitutionality of the provisions of the Voting Rights Acts that require federal oversight of local election and enfranchisement procedures. These sections had been the subject of numerous unsuccessful lawsuits throughout the Voting Rights Act’s existence, and in their 2013 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that these sections were unconstitutional.
This opened the door for a resurgence of common disenfranchisement efforts, which often have an outsized impact on Native populations. Indigenous people often don’t have easy access to forms of ID that are considered acceptable by state election boards. Further, socioeconomic factors like work and economic restraints, residence and lack of housing issues, as well as distrust of government agencies all work to dissuade Native Americans from engaging politically. Even physical distance to polling places has been a barrier in the past. In 2016 and 2018, members of the Kaibab Paiute tribe in Arizona had to travel 280 miles one way in order to vote early in person. This sort of barrier is exemplative of the fact that expansion of voting rights can’t simply mean registering more people, but must also include increasing access to political participation.
This ideal is captured in a bill introduced to the House of Representatives in 2019, the Native American Voting Rights Act. Much like the 1965 Act, this would specifically defend and encourage the right of Native Americans to vote and participate in government. The bill aims to ensure equal access to voting for Native Americans, encouraging cooperation between the Department of Justice and individual tribes on voting issues that are directly impacting their people. It even includes specific provisions to make tribal IDs acceptable forms of identification for voter registration(14).
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