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African-American children gather around a voter registration sign. Kheel Center/flickr, CC BY

Voter ID laws: Why black Democrats’ fight for the ballot in Mississippi still matters

This fall, we are faced with the question of who will become president. And equally important – who can vote?

Over the past decade, Republican lawmakers in more than 20 states have enacted laws making it harder to vote. In the most extreme cases, they require citizens to present government-issued ID to cast their ballots. Recently, these laws have been successfully challenged in the courts.

This summer, federal courts overturned voting laws in North Carolina and North Dakota. In North Carolina, the court ruled against a state law requiring voters to present government-issued ID. The law also restricted, among other things, early voting and had a disproportionate effect on African-American voters. A federal judge ruled that the North Dakota voter ID law had a harmful impact on the ability of Native Americans to cast their vote.

Looming over the controversy about voter ID laws is the history of voter suppression and the movement to open the ballot box to African-Americans. As a scholar in African-American history, I believe that today’s debate can be understood only by considering struggles of African-Americans for the vote in the past and in particular by looking at the story of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

Voter suppression in Jim Crow Mississippi

The 15th Amendment extended the right to vote to African-American men in 1870. Loyal to Lincoln, African-American men voted en masse for the Republican Party. Soon after, the Democratic Party in the South stripped African-Americans of the vote and returned to power using a wave of violence and legislation.

In the 1870s, white paramilitary groups including the Ku Klux Klan and White Leagues toppled Republican governments, and the South became a one-party region controlled by the Democrats. Once in power, white Democrats required voters to pay a poll tax, which former slaves and their descendants could ill afford. “White primaries” excluded blacks from voting for primary election candidates. Once white Democrats made it through the primaries, they were guaranteed a victory in the general election because of the one-party system.

The fight over the ballot intensified in Mississippi in the 1950s and 1960s. Local African-American activists saw the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision as a window to advance other political objectives. One of them was voting, so they waged grassroots voter registration campaigns.

In reaction, Mississippi legislators passed a constitutional amendment that set new rules for voter registration. The law required new voters to complete a 20-question application. One question required applicants to copy and interpret a section of the state’s constitution. The law gave county registrars the authority to decide whether applicants provided a “reasonable” interpretation. Virtually all African-Americans, regardless of education or performance, failed this test and thus could not register. Some counties also required voters who were already registered to reregister.

The principal objective of the amendment and these “reregistration” campaigns was to suppress black votes. It worked. The already small black electorate was cut in half. In 1954, 22,000 blacks in Mississippi were registered to vote. But in 1955, after the amendment took effect, the number of registered black voters plummeted to 12,000. Only about 2 percent of eligible black voters were registered.

Political violence accompanied the legal change. The 1955 attempted assassination of voting rights activist Gus Courts and the assassination of George. W. Lee sent messages to black Mississippians about the potential costs of political activism.

The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party: Fighting for the vote

In the 1960s, activists from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Congress of Racial Equality pushed for voting rights and established the Council of Federated Organizations. Council members canvassed the state and held mock elections and voter registration campaigns. This work evolved into the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), founded in 1964 as an alternative to the all-white Democratic Party that dominated state politics and excluded blacks from participating.

Aaron Henry, chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegation, speaks at the Democratic National Convention in 1964. Library of Congress/Warren K. Leffler

In contrast to the mainstream Democratic Party, the Freedom Democratic Party “meetings were conducted so that sharecroppers, farmers and ordinary working people could participate.”

The work started at the local level, gained headway during the Freedom Summer of 1964 and was consolidated at the state convention of the MFDP in August of that year. The seasoned civil rights figure Ella Baker gave the keynote address. In a statement that still resonates today, she proclaimed that “until the killing of black mothers’ sons is as important as the killing of white mothers’ sons, we must keep on.”

The MFDP elected 68 delegates to attend the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, with the goal of replacing the all-white Mississippi delegation. They brought their case before the national party’s credentials committee, responsible for seating delegates. The most compelling argument came from the MFDP delegate Fannie Lou Hamer, a sharecropper from Mississippi. She gave a stirring testimony before the committee about the threats and violence she faced for exercising her rights as a citizen to organize and vote.

While all the delegates hoped to be seated, the credentials committee extended them just two at-large seats. Resentful about the invitation of black delegates, most of the all-white Mississippi party members left the convention.

Resisting the compromise, MFDP members picketed outside the convention and held a sit-in on the convention floor. After an internal debate, they rejected the national party’s offer of two seats, seeing it as token representation and a weak response to the all-white Mississippi delegation and their practices of racial exclusion.

In the short run, the MFDP did not achieve its immediate goals. But, in concert with the broader African-American Southern Freedom movement, they sparked a larger political shift. The subsequent passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 removed some racial barriers to the vote. By the early 20th century, African-Americans constituted a majority of the registered Democrats in deep South states from South Carolina to Louisiana.

Arguments about voting rights

Decades of local political organizing by African-Americans culminated in the 1960s with organizations like the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party that transformed the American political system. The activists of that era opened the ballot box to African-Americans in the South. But in the past decade, debates in state legislatures and the courts have been revisiting the rules of access.

In the 2008 case of Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Indiana’s voter ID laws on the grounds that they deterred voter fraud. In the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder case, the Supreme Court weakened the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 set a formula to determine which parts of the country were required to get federal permission to change voting laws. The Supreme Court concluded in a 5-4 decision that the formula is not valid because it relies on “40-year-old facts that have no logical relation to the present day.” In essence, they argued that racist practices of the Jim Crow era were a thing of the past. The court also concluded that Congress would have to revise the Voting Rights Act’s formula before the federal government could enforce the law’s permission or “preclearance” requirement. The court thus gave states a window to revise their voting laws without federal oversight.

Scholars have drawn different conclusions about the effects of voter ID laws. Political scientist Andra Gillespie has suggested that the threat posed by Georgia’s voter ID law might have actually led African-Americans to be more vigilant about voting and increased the overall percentage of registered black voters who turned out on election day. One team of legal scholars and political scientists has argued that the effect of voter ID laws on voter turnout of people of color has been negligible.

But in a persuasive counter to this argument, Richard Sobel has found that the hidden costs of getting a “free” government ID has put it out of reach for many. Obtaining a government ID comes at a cost – transportation to government agencies, acquiring birth certificates and missed work hours – that many citizens cannot bear. In other words, it amounts to a kind of poll tax, which was outlawed by the 24th Amendment to the Constitution.

African-American voting rights have been under assault from state legislatures and continue to be debated in the courts. A federal court just ruled that the state of North Carolina gerrymandered its districts to dilute black voting power and thus violated the Constitution. However, a different federal appeals ruling blocked a lower court order that loosened the requirements of Wisconsin’s voter ID law.

The fate of voting rights is still undetermined and being contested through both national and local political struggles. Voting rights advocates, while challenging voter ID and other discriminatory laws through the courts, can see the MFDP as a model of voter education and mobilization. And more generally, the MFDP’s culture of empowerment of the marginalized offers a lesson in the meaning and practice of democracy.

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