Facing our history to safeguard our future

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Voting is a quintessential American right that serves as the very cornerstone of our nation’s democracy. In 1776, however, the ability to vote was not a right, but a privilege for the few members of society allowed to participate in American government. According to the Constitutional Rights Foundation, White men over the age of 21 who owned property made up between 10 and 20% of the American population in 1776, yet they made up 100% of the voting population. Throughout the history of the United States, a total of five Constitutional Amendments were needed to end voter discrimination based on race, gender and wealth.  

Yet while it is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, the supreme law of the land, voter discrimination and voter suppression still occurs every November, as addressed by Dr. Carol Anderson in a forum presented by Facing History and Ourselves. This webinar marked the second installment of the year-long “Facing History Now: Conversations on Equity and Justice” virtual event series. 

Anderson is a Charles Howard Candler Professor and the chair of African American Studies at Emory University. She has devoted her professional career to the study of racial injustices in the U.S., drawing on her own experiences as an African-American child in post-WWII America. 

“I grew up in a place where racism was so destructive and lethal. I saw people who were giving their all, who were doing everything that they were supposed to do,” Anderson said. “It was not powerful enough to overcome the systemic racism undermining the quality of life, undermining human rights in that community. That is how I got here.” 

Voter suppression is among the many injustices committed against the African American community, with continued oppression despite the passage of the 15th Amendment guaranteeing former slaves and people of color the right to vote. In the era of Jim Crow, states of the former Confederacy implemented black codes that barred African-American voters with literacy tests, poll taxes and grandfather clauses. 

“By the time we got to 1940, the Second World War had begun. Only 3% of black adults were registered to vote in the South,” Anderson said. “This was a place where 90% of African-Americans who are in the United States live. And only 3% were registered to vote.” 

Anderson described an analogy likening the U.S. to a choir, with voter suppression being imposed in a choir scenario, allowing only a select few to sing.  

“Imagine only sopranos singing. For years,” Anderson said. “You only pick songs that sopranos can sing. So you have a very limited playbook, and it leaves everybody else out.” 

Anderson continued her metaphor with a look toward a better future.  

“But imagine now having a choir with baritones, and altos, and tenors and basses. And the sopranos,” Anderson said. “Now you have got a rich, vibrant sound, and you have got a music book that has an array of songs that all can sing. That is a very different kind of America. That is where we need to get to.” 

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