My heart is heavy with this Trayvon Martin case. For those of you that may not have been following the case, he was a 17 year old boy who was shot and killed by an overzealous self-nominated neighborhood watch captain who claims he was acting in self-defense. The same self-defense argument that has prevented him from being arrested even after the boy was found dead with only iced tea and skittles in his pocket. We all know how skittles can be threatening to someone who is pursuing a suspicious black kid.
Voting is a right and a responsibility that I take seriously. One of the things that I learned at an early age is the appreciation of my history. I learned not only African American history, but my family’s history as well. My great grandparents were sharecroppers and my grandparents and their children picked cotton.
According to the U.S. History Encyclopedia: Sharecroppers were agricultural wage laborers who raised crops on farm plots owned by large landowners in the post–Civil War era. Both landless whites and blacks worked as sharecroppers, although the majority of sharecroppers were African Americans. The system of sharecropping primarily existed in the southern states and was the end result of struggles between former planters and recently freed slaves over the terms of a new labor system. The sharecropping system was financially oppressive and most sharecroppers were unable to break out of a cycle of poverty and debt. Sharecroppers were responsible for providing their own board and clothing. Sharecropping began to die down after the Great Depression, so many planters were either evicted from their land or migrated north.
My grandmother was born in 1930. She dropped out of school in the third grade in order to take care of her family. Her birth mother had died, so she needed to help her father by tending to the land and being a substitute mother to her siblings.
As many of you are aware, southern black folks weren’t given the right to vote. It was given to us by the Civil Rights Act in 1965. Growing up in the south, there were many tactics used to discourage blacks from voting including literacy tactics and poll taxes. Many other strange stunts were pulled so that blacks couldn’t exercise their right to vote. Did you know that some blacks were asked “how many bubbles were in a bar of soap?”. What kind of foolishness was that?
Eight Ways People Were Kept From Voting
1) Violence: Blacks who tried to vote were threatened, beaten, and killed. Their families were also harmed. Sometimes their homes were burned down. Often, they lost their jobs or were thrown off their farms.
Whites used violence to intimidate blacks and prevent them from even thinking about voting. Still, some blacks passed the requirements to vote and took the risk. Some whites used violence to punish those “uppity” people and show other blacks what would happen to them if they voted.
2) Literacy tests: Today almost all adults can read. One hundred years ago, however, many people – black and white – were illiterate. Most illiterate people were not allowed to vote. A few were allowed if they could understand what was read to them. White officials usually claimed that whites could understand what was read. They said blacks could not understand it, even if they could.
3) Property tests: In the South one hundred years ago, many states allowed only property owners to vote. Many blacks and whites had no property and could not vote.
4) Grandfather clause: People who could not read and owned no property were allowed to vote if their fathers or grandfathers had voted before 1867. Of course, practically no blacks could vote before 1867, so the grandfather clause worked only for whites.
5) All-white primary elections: In the United States, there are usually two rounds of elections: first the primary, then the general. In the primary, Republicans run against Republicans and Democrats run against Democrats. In the general election, the winner of the Republican primary runs against the winner of the Democratic primary. The Republican or Democrat who gets the most votes is elected.
In the South from about 1900 to about 1960, the Democratic candidates usually won. (See the exhibit Political Parties in Black and White to learn the reason for this.) Republicans were almost never elected, especially in the Deep South. This means that the Democratic primary election was usually the only election that mattered.
African Americans were not allowed to vote in the Democratic primary elections. White Democrats said the Democratic Party was a “club” and did not allow black members. So blacks could not vote in the only elections that mattered.
6) Purges: From time to time, white officials purged the voting rolls. That means they took people’s names off the official lists of voters. Some voters would arrive at the polls and find that they were not registered to vote. Often they could not register to vote again until after the election. Purges more often affected blacks than whites.
7) Former prisoners: People who had gone to prison were often not allowed to vote. Blacks were very often arrested on trumped-up charges or for minor offenses. Sometimes, white owners of mines, farms, and factories simply needed cheap labor, and prisons provided it. This law kept many more blacks from voting than whites.
8) Poll taxes: In Southern states, people had to pay a tax to vote. The taxes were about $25 to $50 dollars in today’s money. Many people had extremely low incomes and could not afford this tax. This poll tax applied to all people who wanted to vote – black and white. There were ways for whites to get around other laws, but not around the poll tax. Many poor whites could not vote because of the poll tax.
My grandmother told me that she didn’t vote until she was in her mid-30’s and married. She said that the first time she went to vote, the woman at the court house asked her “Are you a Democrat or Republican?” She said that she didn’t know which party she belonged to so she said Republican.
Later that evening, when she arrived home, my grandfather asked her, “What did you vote?” She replied, “Republican”. He said, “Fool, you ain’t no Republican. You poor and black. You a Democrat!”
Knowing my family’s history and this country’s history has afforded me the opportunity to be enlightened, educated and free. I don’t squander the hand I was dealt and I believe in exercising my right to vote. Voting is not a job, it is my right and responsibility and considering the current state of political candidates I encourage everyone to look at it as such and cast your vote.