Tuesday, August 20, 2013
History Repeating Itself: Discriminatory Voting Laws Then and Now
In this post from Sociological Images last month, right after the US Supreme Court overturned a key portion of the Voting Rights Act, sociologist Lisa Wade pointed out that one of the main targets of the 1965 law was the discriminatory “literacy Tests” that were designed to keep blacks away from the polls. Wade explained, “Ostensibly designed to ensure that everyone who voted could read and write, [these tests] were actually tools with which to disenfranchise African Americans and sometimes Latinos and American Indians. Minority voters were disproportionately required to take these tests and, when they did, the election official at the polling place had 100% jurisdiction to decide which answers were correct and score the test as he liked. The point was to intimidate and turn them away from the polls.” Her article includes some of the actual questions from such a test. Be sure to read them. How would you score? She also tells why she is concerned about other forms of voter suppression today. More examples of such suppression have been occurring since she wrote the article.
Related: See this article showing how “literacy tests” were graded very differently for blacks than for whites. (One example is described by Jeff Schwartz, a Civil Rights worker in the 1960s who wrote the article: “Check out question 21. It says: ‘Spell backwards, forwards’. If a Black person spelled ‘backwards’ but omitted the comma, he/she would be flunked. If a Black person spelled ‘backwards,’ he/she would be flunked. If a Black person asked why, he/she would be told either ‘you forgot the comma,’ or ‘you shouldn’t have included the comma,’ or ‘you should have spelled ‘backwards, forwards.'” Any plausible response by a white person would be accepted, and so would any implausible response.”) Read more here. See also this New York Times article and video about Congressman John Lewis, the only surviving speaker from the 1963 March on Washington, who is still working for racial justice 50 years after the Washington March and is concerned about voting rights all over again. Last, if you have a chance to see the movie, Freedom Song (2000), with Danny Glover, on DVD, be sure to watch it. I don’t know why I missed it 13 years ago, but when I watched it just recently, I was moved to tears. It brought this period of African Americans’ struggle for voting rights to life in a way that simply knowing the facts alone does not. It’s the power of a story.