When Reconstruction ended in 1877, states across the South implemented new laws to restrict the voting rights of African Americans. These included onerous requirements of owning property, paying poll taxes, and passing literacy or civics exams. Many African Americans who attempted to vote were also threatened physically or feared losing their jobs. One of the major goals of the Civil Rights Movement was to register voters across the South in order for African Americans to gain political power. Most of the interviewees in the Civil Rights History Project were involved in voter registration drives, driving voters to the polls, teaching literacy classes for the purposes of voter registration, or encouraging local African Americans to run as candidates.
Robert G. Clark, Jr., explained the retaliation against those who dared to register voters in his interview. When Clark worked as a teacher in Belzoni, Mississippi, a local minister named Reverend Lee was shot and killed for registering voters in the mid-1950s. He also remembered the difficulties his father faced in his career for taking the same risk: “My father was a schoolteacher. He was fired in Holmes County because he was teaching voter registration classes… he could not get another job in Mississippi. See, what they would do, they would take your name and give your name to the Sovereignty Commission. That Sovereignty Commission would send those names to all of the superintendents of education.” The Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission was created by an act of the Mississippi State Legislature in 1955 as a backlash against the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case and the perceived encroachment of the federal government’s power. The commission investigated activists across the state, using a network of informants, economic reprisals, and threats. Clark was later elected as the first black Representative elected to the Mississippi State House after Reconstruction, a result of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Rosie Head remembers her attempt to register to vote in Mississippi in 1964, when the local clerk used police dogs to try to intimidate her and other women. She says, “The chancellor clerk had said to me, ‘Now, I know you know better!’ He knew my grandparents. ‘I’ve known your people for years and years, and I know you know better. What are you doing out here anyway?’ And so, I told him what I wanted. And he said, ‘You go home and do like your mama and your grandmama did. You don’t need to come out here. This ain’t for black folk.’” The clerk would not approve her test and it was not until the Voting Rights Act passed the following year that federal registrars found her records and allowed her to vote.
Voter registration drives also brought African American communities together to work for a common cause. John Churchville was registering voters when he came across two rival teenage gangs fighting in Americus, Georgia. He stepped into the fight to stop it and recalls, “And they just stopped. I said, ‘This is what white folks want you to do! Why are you doing this?! We’re here to help you to register so you can get some power for real and stop fighting each other.’ They stopped gang warring. We were able to recruit them to first register themselves, and then to negotiate a peace treaty and help us go out and recruit people to register and vote.”
Voting was a lifelong dream for many older African Americans in the South. Charles Siler worked on a voter registration project in Baton Rouge in 1962. He remembers an elderly Mrs. Williams, whom he took to register, her third attempt. He took a gun with him, under his coat, for protection. He remembers, “I was prepared to shoot somebody if they had decided to go that far. They didn’t, because when she walked in, she was in charge. They moved aside. She walked—and when she walked into the Registrar of Voters office, I was told, ‘You can’t go in there.’ I said, ‘No problem.’ I stood back against the wall… I was waiting. And I was standing there like this and I was pressing that little Beretta because I wanted—when she came out she had this smile on her face. Okay? That made all of it worth it. It was, you know, as good as it could get at that moment, because she got what she wanted and she got to vote before she died. And, you know, you think about being eighty-four in 1962. Her parents had been slaves… to her, it was important.”
The long struggle for African American voting rights was part of a centuries-old effort to ensure that the United States Constitution applied to all citizens, not just white male landowners. Despite the passage of many constitutional amendments, federal and state laws, and Supreme Court cases, the full participation of every American citizen in elections is an ideal that has never been reached. John Rosenberg worked in the 1960s as an attorney for the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, primarily investigating voting rights violations and abuses in the South. He laments the 2013 Supreme Court case that repealed section IV of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which provided special protections for voters in states in the South with a history of violations. He advises, “Now whether it is congressional work or lawsuits that are going to be filed in some of the cases, you saw in a number of these states that they immediately started coming out with voter ID laws or other kinds of statutes, other laws that are obviously intended to turn the clock back and make it more difficult for people, minorities, to register to vote and that kind of thing. … I think the decision is wrong, but … that’s our system and we don’t go into the streets, we start working on trying to change it.”