'Casting Our Ballot'
Above: Ayanna Pressley, the first black congresswoman for Massachusetts
The Honorable Myron Thompson
The Honorable Ron Kirk
Waverly Person
The Honorable Richard Arrington
Elaine Jones
Lani Guinier
Laura Murphy
This week’s midterm election results produced a number of celebrated firsts and victories for African American and minority candidates. However, too-close-to-call gubernatorial races in Georgia and Florida reveal an all too familiar past with suppression of the black vote. The history of disenfranchisement of black voters in the U.S. is a long and troubled one. Federal district court judge The Honorable Myron Thompson , who became the first African American Assistant Attorney General for the State of Alabama, remembered voting in the 1960s, “ I remember voting for the first time in Alabama and being scared, frightened because you never knew what these people would do. You heard these stories, like in Tuskegee, you knew that they would meet in these vaults and you knew that you could be arrested if you didn't do things right and I knew that for a lot of black people who had been exposed to the intimidation of the '50s and the '40s, of even going into a place where you were not welcomed, was so strong that just the simple act of voting took just an incredible amount of courage. 1 Voter intimidation, poll taxes and literacy tests were all a part of the system of disenfranchising black voters. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a landmark piece of legislation that prohibited racially discriminatory voting practices. Since then, it’s faced a series of impending expirations and amendments which required tremendous action and support from voting rights advocates.

Before 1965, widespread voter suppression in the U.S. was orchestrated through a series of ambiguous and often impossible requirements. The first African American mayor of Dallas, The Honorable Ron Kirk noted that in addition to literacy tests blacks were also subjected to random questioning and even property requirements, “ Voting was sort of tied to property ownership. You had to own property, you had that right. So, in a sense, you paid for the privilege of voting. And later, in the South, that was translated into something we call a poll tax, and you literally had to go and raise money to pay a tax for the privilege of exercising your right. 2 Geophysicist Waverly Person, who worked for local NAACP chapter in Lawrenceville, Virginia, also spoke about the difficulty with voter registration, “ You had to pay what was called a poll tax…And when they gave you an application to register, you'll start off with your name and address, occupation. So the application they gave the whites had that on it, all you do is fill it out. For the blacks, they had a blank sheet of paper, and if you didn't put it in order, you were disqualified. 3 The Honorable Richard Arrington, who was the first African American mayor in the City of Birmingham, echoed similar experiences growing up in Alabama, “ I grew up in a time when it was hard for black folk to vote here. We studied, you had to go before the board of registrars and three whites are sitting on the board…We had a list of questions, the churches would try to get people to go register to vote. We're gonna take a bunch of them down to the registrars' office, and they'd try to get us ready and study questions the registrars would ask. So we eventually had a legal sheet with questions on both sides because what they'd do was they'd debrief you when you come back, whether you passed or not. 4

While the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) protected minorities from discriminatory voting practices enacted by states, the legislation itself has faced expiration six times. Voters rights advocates like Elaine Jones, who served as the first woman president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, recalled the gravity of the lobbying effort it took to renew the VRA, “ Once you lose the Voting Rights Act, you lose all the protections under the act. They're still messing around with the black vote…It's absurd. They still try to mess with the African American vote. So, civil rights and social justice issues don't ever go away. You can't rest on your laurels. ” She continued, “ So here we come up for '82. So we had to start on that two years, at least two years ahead, two years around the clock, Lani Guinier and I are working in the same office. She on the one side with her desk and on her phone, me on the other side. Two years, side by side, on that Voting Rights Act. 5 Director of the ACLU of Washington Laura Murphy also remembered working with Elaine Jones and Lani Guinier, “ Elaine and Lani…There were about seven of us, this was our mission to get the Voting Rights Act extended. We really targeted the papers, and so we got good editorials out of newspapers. We really did a great job in developing the hearing record. We had people come from the South who talked about how in 1980 the polling places were changed at the last minute in all the black neighborhoods, how the machines were malfunctioning, how blacks were purged from the voter rolls and all this other stuff. So we had wonderful witnesses. 6 The protections outlined in the VRA have been successfully upheld six times, thanks to the dedicated work of noted individuals. Today, we are reminded that despite these protections, tactics like voter purges and voter registration holds, as exercised in Florida and among other states, largely impact African American and minority voters. As Democratic hopefuls Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum continue their fight for fair elections, echoes of support are heard throughout the country.
This week, Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams continued her fight for the governor's seat in the State of Georgia against Republican challenger Brian Kemp . With 99% of precincts reporting, Kemp's narrow lead still proves to be too-close-to-call for the Abrams campaign. Kemp, the Secretary of State in charge of overseeing elections, only stepped down from his position a day after the election. He also faces a myriad of allegations in voter suppression tactics targeting minority groups. Earlier last month, reports emerged that over 50,000 voter registrations were placed on hold because they did not meet state law requirements. Reportedly, 70% of those are from black voters. With Abrams not yet ready to concede, her campaign readies a legal team prepared to take the fight to the courts as the hunt continues for additional votes to push the race into runoff territory.
This week, The HistoryMakers returned to Charleston, South Carolina for the annual Charleston Conference for academic libraries and publishers. Our own Dionti Davis , delivered a fantastic presentation showcasing The HistoryMakers Digital Archive for the Charleston Premiers: Five Minute Preview of the New and Noteworthy competition, winning two out of three categories!

Overall, the conference was a great success; we thank all of those who attended our presentation and for your support. We look forward to next year's conference and to forging new partnerships with potential subscribing institutions.
"If your space is no better when you leave it than when you found it, you need to redefine your journey."

- Flonzie Brown Wright, civil rights activist and author
1. The Honorable Myron Thompson (The HistoryMakers A2007.100), interviewed by Denise Gines, March 20, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 5, story 7, Myron Thompson describes his prison and voting rights cases.
2. The Honorable Ron Kirk (The HistoryMakers A2004.214), interviewed by Larry Crowe, October 25, 2004, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 11, The Honorable Ron Kirk explains discriminatory measures that prevented African American voting in the South.
3. Waverly Person (The HistoryMakers A2002.119), interviewed by Larry Crowe, June 19, 2002, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 5, Waverly Person talks about learning about the government and his civic actions to help blacks register to vote.
4. The Honorable Richard Arrington (The HistoryMakers A2017.094), interviewed by Denise Gines, May 4, 2017, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 10, The Honorable Richard Arrington remembers registering to vote.
5. Elaine Jones (The HistoryMakers A2006.151), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, March 6, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 2, tape 9, story 8, Elaine Jones talks about lobbying to renew the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
6. Laura Murphy (The HistoryMakers A2001.051), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, January 18, 2001, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 2, Laura Murphy continues with the successful lobbying for extending the Voting Rights Act.
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