The stakes are always high in an election. When most Americans think about how high, many inevitably reflect on the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, when black Americans risked their lives and livelihoods to cast a ballot. Yet, over the past several months as I’ve researched my family history and the legacy of a Georgia church my ancestors helped establish, I’ve been mesmerized by another period in American history where the fight for suffrage was even more daunting – after the Civil War.
Following bloody battles that killed thousands, the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in 1865. Black men got the right to vote and voted for the first time in 1867. To further ensure the rights of blacks, the 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868 guaranteeing U.S. citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and the 15th Amendment was passed in 1870 stating that the right to vote could not be denied to anyone because of race, color or previous servitude.
But the fight for those voting rights began before the Civil War ended and all slaves were freed. In 1864, a group of freed slaves met with President Abraham Lincoln to thank him for the Emancipation Proclamation he had signed that gave some liberty. At the same time, they presented him with a proclamation urging him to “finish the noble work you have begun, and grant your petitioners that greatest of privileges… to exercise the right of suffrage.”
The group was led by a North Carolinian, Abraham Galloway, a black abolitionist, Union spy and recruiter of blacks for the Union Army. Galloway would go on to introduce bills in 1869 and 1870 calling for women’s suffrage after Congress voted only for suffrage for black men.
Those black men though wasted no time in exercising the right after they received it even though the choices were not all to their liking. More than half a million signed up in the South. My great-great grandfather Joseph Tate was one of them. He signed the Qualifying Voters and Reconstruction Oath in Georgia only four months after The Reconstruction Act of March 23, 1867 passed giving all male citizens 21 years and older who had sworn the oath of loyalty to the United States the right to vote. Tax records show he and other relatives scraped together money to pay the poll tax and voted. That took courage and fortitude given that violence and intimidation to keep them from voting had already begun. A freed black man was lynched near their homes in July of 1866 because he advocated voting rights. A young newly married couple was arrested, then dragged from jail by the Ku Klux Klan and murdered a year later in a neighboring county.
In the Georgia county where my great grandfather Stepney King helped found a church, the Klan regularly terrorized blacks who thrived, became politically active and tried to vote. In 1868, armed Klansmen in Columbia County, Ga., scared away blacks at voting places as well as the federal soldiers who had been sent to protect them.
But most were undaunted and historians say their votes helped elect blacks as well as white Republicans to local, state and national offices. Blacks became magistrates, aldermen, police chiefs, fire officials and members of Congress. That black progress was stymied nationwide as many whites stepped up violence and intimidation to regain authority over blacks and limit their ability to achieve. By 1908, states had enacted new constitutions with laws explicitly disenfranchising black voters.
Yet the fight to vote and gain equality would not die. Unfettered universal suffrage became a rallying cry that gained volume and power over the next 60 years until laws and attitudes brought it to fruition. That cry should ring loudly again today as new obstacles are being erected to hobble citizens’ abilities to exercise their voting rights. They are sadly reminiscent of a dark past. We the people, like those dogged patriots of the past, must not allow such impediments to stand.
Fannie Flono is a former associate editor of the Observer’s editorial pages.