The Struggle for Civil Rights

As young adults (myself included), we tend to take for granted our right to vote. Voting is one of the easiest ways that we can make our voices heard and yet the turnout rate for people my age is pretty disappointing. How can we expect to have our concerns taken seriously if we don’t get out to the ballot box?

What if we didn’t have this awesome right? For most of the United States’ 240 year history, many did not. Voting was a privilege only available to a minority of citizens. This meant that only a small percentage had a say in the decisions made by our government – decisions that affected everyone.

In this election year, I want to inspire my fellow young adults to value the right to vote and to appreciate the history of obstacles that many had to face in order to achieve suffrage. This post is part of a series. In honor of Black History Month, this first installment will feature the struggle African Americans faced in order to gain their right to vote.

So, let’s get started. At the founding of our country, there was no national agreement on what the requirements for voter eligibility should be. The decision was left to the states, with most choosing to only enfranchise white, male landowners. Some states imposed religious restrictions as well, limiting the number of voters even further. In total, only 6% of the American population could vote while George Washington was president.

Nearly a century later, President Lincoln and the Congress passed the 13th Amendment after four long bloody years of the American Civil War. This granted freedom to all enslaved African Americans living in the United States. Another five years later, Congress added the 15th Amendment which granted African American men the right to vote regardless of “race, color, or previous state of servitude.”

However, the 15th Amendment did not stop some states from finding loopholes which enabled them to construct obstacles in order to block African Americans from voting. These obstacles, called “Jim Crow” laws, took different forms, including required literacy tests and poll taxes. This made it nearly impossible for African Americans, and other minority groups, to voice their concerns within their communities.

It took almost 100 years for African Americans to get out from under these laws. Activists like Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) used grassroots movements in order to gain enough support to bring Civil Rights to the attention of our law makers. In 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in order to prohibit racial discrimination in voting nationwide. In total it took almost 200 years for African Americans to gain full access to the voting booths. This long struggle should not be forgotten.

In today’s world it is important that we don’t lose sight of what others have done in order to get where we are today. Whether or not your candidates win, voting ensures that your voice is in the mix. By not taking the time to vote, you take for granted the efforts of past groups that fought for suffrage. As citizens fortunate to have this privilege, we must exercise this right. At the Morven Park Center for Civic Impact we believe that each voice matters, and it all starts with you registering to vote.

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