September 17, 2012 marks the 225th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution. On September 17, 1787, 39 men came together in Philadelphia to sign the U.S. Constitution. This meeting started our democratic government. In 2005 Congress marked September 17 as a day for students to study and reflect on the Constitution. Constitution day is a day for all Americans to celebrate the beginnings of democracy that was started on that day. Constitution day is also a day to reflect on the changes in the Constitution to broaden our voting rights since 1787. Today there is a Republican move affront to diminish our voting rights.
As we move towards our election on November 6, it is important to reflect on the changes to our basic right to vote in the Constitution. At the time of the signing of the Constitution, only male property owners were allowed to vote. Almost 100 years later, the 15th amendment was passed in 1870 allowing all men, including freed black men regardless of their previous servitude to vote. Former male slaves were granted the right to vote.
And 50 years later in 1920, the 19th amendment was passed giving women the right to vote. Native Americans were given the right to vote in 1926 with the Indian Citizenship Act. And another 51 years after giving women the right to vote, the youth vote was passed-giving the right to vote to all citizens 18 years or older in 1971. The 26th amendment was passed because 18 year olds were allowed to go into war and fight and die but not vote.
With the passage of the voting rights amendments for blacks, it took years to fully accomplish the goals. Although, black men were given the right to vote and actually served as lawmakers in the 19th century, a backlash occurred in the south after the Reconstruction era ended. During reconstruction of the south after the Civil War, 2000 black men served as lawmakers on a local, state or national level in southern states by 1877. 17 black men served in Congress between 1870-1887. But then the period of Reconstruction ended in 1877 and white supremacy began to rule again. All gains of blacks in elected positions and voting rights for most blacks were lost in the south. South Carolina Republican Tim Scott made history in 2010 by becoming the first African-American Republican to be elected to Congress from the Deep South since Reconstruction ended.
Although black men were given the right to vote in 1870 and black women in 1920, it was not until 1965 that the federal government would fully protect those rights in the Jim Crow south with the passage of the Voter Rights Act of 1965. Before President Johnson signed the Voter Rights Act, many blacks lost their lives fighting for the right to vote as American citizens in the Jim Crow south. Poll taxes requiring blacks to pay money to vote were abolished the year earlier by 24th amendment to the constitution.
President Lyndon Johnson in signing the Voter Rights Act on August 6, 1965 said that “This right to vote is the basic right without which all others are meaningless.”
It is important that we as a nation remember our history. Without it, we are destined to repeat it. And unfortunately a move is now affront to repeat some of the sins of our past with Republican led voter ID, voter disenfranchisement and voter purging laws.
We must never go back to the dark period of our history where blacks, women, Native Americans, non-English speaking Americans and young adults were denied the right to vote. As Rep. John Lewis states, “the right to vote is sacred.”
Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a former prosecutor and founder of LegalSpeaks, a progressive blog on women and race in law and politics. As a legal and political commentator she has appeared in national and local media including the Michael Eric Dyson Show, NBC, ABC and CBS affiliates, RT TV, CBC- Canadian TV, NPR, XM Sirius radio, the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, USA Today, Black Enterprise among others. She also writes for the Huffington Post and Politic 365.