Historian Carter G. Woodson in 1926 established “Negro History Week” to celebrate the contributions to our nation made by black people. Fifty years later, during the U.S. Bicentennial, the week was expanded to a monthlong celebration when President Gerald Ford officially recognized February as Black History Month. Each February, we recognize the achievements of black people and the central role they’ve played in our nation’s history. This year won’t be any different.
Last week, Google took the internet by storm when it released its Black History Month commercial. Consistent with what we typically see during Black History Month, the commercial highlights the life and legacy of black people and moments that have captivated our attention over time — those who have had an irrefutable influence on American history and those who are continuing to shape our future. In addition to music icons, poets, scientists and inventors, the commercial concludes with the most searched movement, the civil rights movement, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech.
Though the commercial ends there, we know the fight for civil rights did not.
In fact, today we’re still fighting not only for racial and economic justice but for a fundamental right that’s central to democracy itself — access to the ballot box.
It is fitting, then, that this year’s theme for Black History Month — from Woodson’s Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) — is African Americans and the Vote. As ASALH notes, this year marks the centennial of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote, and the sesquicentennial of the 15th Amendment, which gave black men the ballot.
Those amendments made sure that black men and black women had the constitutional right to vote. But that wasn’t enough. For many, those rights existed on paper only. Beginning in the 1890s, the Jim Crow era brought a wave of new state statutes in the South, including poll taxes and literacy tests, that were specifically designed to disenfranchise black voters.
Amazingly, some Jim Crow-era laws remain in place to this day — like those that bar voting by people who have been convicted of certain crimes — effectively silencing the voices of millions of black men and women in the Deep South.
And that’s just one part of the challenges we’re facing today.
Since 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court gutted a key provision in the Voting Rights Act, numerous states have systematically and aggressively enacted laws aimed at suppressing the votes of black people.
Nearly 1,200 polling places have been closed since then. States have purged voter lists. Even earlier, we’ve seen heavily gerrymandered congressional and legislative districts that dilute the voting power of communities of color.
That’s why the Southern Poverty Law Center made a commitment to fight for voting rights by forming a new legal and advocacy team to focus solely on protecting the right to vote.
In Alabama, we’ve helped more than 2,000 returning citizens navigate the state’s convoluted process to restore their voting rights. Last March, we celebrated in Louisiana as many returning citizens became eligible to vote for the first time under a law that we helped pass in the state legislature.
As we reflect on black history this month and the accomplishments of notable African Americans, let us not forget those who fought and died for our right to vote. And let us remain vigilant in the protection of this precious, fundamental right.
You can check your voter registration and those of your loved ones here. And please, if you encounter resistance to registering or casting your ballot — including purges, absentee ballots or any other situation — let us know.
This piece was originally published by the Southern Poverty Law Center where Tafeni English is director of the Civil Rights Memorial Center.
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