Democracy in the United States is in another state of emergency. As we approach the 10th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which gutted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), we are reminded of what’s at stake. The court reinterpreted a section of the VRA that required states that historically discriminated against voters of color to be cleared by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) before changing their voting laws. The provision had provided significant protections; between 1965 and 2006, the DOJ blocked more than 1,000 proposed changes to voting laws. But with the Supreme Court ruling, state legislatures immediately took advantage of the decision, opening opportunities for voter suppression tactics such as adopting restrictive voter ID laws, purging voter rolls and advancing redistricting efforts that weaken voting power in communities of color. The effects have continued in the last 10 years, making it more difficult for people of color and people with disabilities to vote.
Voting is one tool to help shape public policy and determine who represents us, but it works best when we all participate. Our nation has yet to fully live up to the concept of equality touted in the Constitution, as voter suppression undermines that ideal. Uncovering history—as it happened, not the aspirational version we often hear—is vital if we hope to mold our society into an inclusive one that lives up to the democratic ideals expressed in the Constitution.
Voter suppression is as old as the practice of voting. Suppression is often of paramount concern for voters from historically marginalized groups and those currently targeted by political campaigns to limit voting rights. Today, civil rights organizations and voting rights activists have been busy fighting against disenfranchisement and working to get us back to the VRA’s original purpose: to ensure all people’s voting rights are protected.
As the 2024 election season nears, now is a good time to get reacquainted with our duties as participants in a diverse democracy. All voters, including new and future voters, must understand the history of voter suppression so we can navigate processes and systems—and help change them for the better. We must contextualize what is happening around us, acknowledging that voter suppression does not occur in a vacuum.
Why Historical Context Matters
In studying the history of voting rights, we see how white supremacy remains a mainstay in U.S. politics. For example, parallels exist between past election violence and the January 6 insurrection and between Jim Crow-era tactics and newly constructed voting laws today. Examining this complete history can enlighten us and help inform new strategies to ensure free and fair elections for all.
Many people have likely missed some context about the struggle for voting rights because of the way U.S. history has been taught in school. There may be considerable gaps in people’s understanding of systemic racism and voting, as evidenced by reports showing states fail to set high standards for learning U.S. history, particularly around slavery and the civil rights movement. Both young people and adults often miss the full struggle if their education featured a more “Disney version” of the story of the United States. That version doesn’t ask, “Why?” It looks like this: Black people overcame slavery, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. helped usher in new civil rights laws, and then a Black man was elected president.
Throughout history, Black and Brown people, immigrants, non-English speakers and white women were excluded from exercising their rights as full citizens. The power structure used exclusionary policies and mob violence to keep the voting pool small.
Voter Suppression Then and Now
People in power use voter suppression tactics because they know that multiracial coalitions have the ability to disrupt unjust systems. People experiencing poverty, communities of color, and incarcerated or formerly incarcerated people are most likely to be disenfranchised.
When Europeans colonized the land that became the United States, people in power had no intention of allowing anyone who wasn’t white, male and a landowner to create policy or vote for their representatives. By the end of the Civil War, former Confederate state leaders (and others who sought to maintain white supremacy outside of the South) made a conscious effort to rebuke a changing society where newly emancipated Black men bought land, built communities and voted.
Southern states passed Black Codes to limit Black people’s social, economic and political power. Similar exclusionary laws were already in place in some Northern states, including New York, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana and Connecticut. This also occurred in the West. For example, Oregon lawmakers explicitly excluded Black, Asian and biracial people from democratic processes, including voting. Southern legislatures enshrined these codes, unleashing the Jim Crow era to create a segregated society. During Reconstruction, Black men in the South were turning out to register to vote and elect Black officials into office. White groups, particularly the Ku Klux Klan, began finding ways to circumvent Black men’s voting rights, including using violence and murder to reinforce white supremacy. And when Reconstruction ended abruptly in 1877, Black people were left to fend for themselves.
In 1890, Mississippi lawmakers took the lead in codifying disenfranchisement in their state constitution, implementing poll taxes and literacy tests to create barriers for people of color and people experiencing poverty.
Different groups of people gained voting rights at different times. White women in the territory of Wyoming were given the right to vote in 1869, and several other states granted women’s suffrage before the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920. However, Black women were often excluded from women’s suffrage activities, organizing separately. Many Black women’s right to vote wouldn’t be protected until 45 years later with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Black men gained the right to vote when the 15th Amendment was ratified in 1870, but Southern Black men’s votes were still suppressed. By the 1940s, the number of Black men voting in the South had plummeted. And while the Snyder Act granted U.S. citizenship to Native Americans in 1924, it would take another 40 years before all Native Americans could vote.
By the 1960s, groups of Black people were leading voting rights campaigns, laying the blueprint for community building and political organizing. Other groups who had been denied rights, from the LGBTQ+ community to people with disabilities, would adopt the same tactics used by the civil rights movement. While the 1960s were marked by intimidation, violence and death in the name of white supremacy, civil rights activists can count the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1968 as victories.
There have been many attempts to weaken voting rights laws, even before Shelby County v. Holder. And these efforts continue. For example, states like Alabama and Louisiana have been the subject of cases brought before the Supreme Court as they implemented new congressional district maps that diluted the political power of Black people. In Alabama, Black activists, led by plaintiff Evan Milligan, challenged the state’s congressional map adopted in fall 2022. They alleged that it violated the voting rights of Black Alabamians, who comprise one-fourth of the state’s population, by consolidating most Black voters into one district (out of seven total).
Fortunately, with the aid of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, justice prevailed in the Alabama case in June 2023. The Supreme Court found that Alabama violated the Voting Rights Act by limiting Black people’s power to one congressional district. This victory shows how organizing at the local and state levels and building coalitions are effective and necessary strategies in securing our voting rights.
“We are grateful that the Supreme Court upheld what we knew to be true: that everyone deserves to have their vote matter and their voice heard,” Milligan told The Associated Press. “Today is a win for democracy and freedom not just in Alabama but across the United States.”
Learning in Any Space
Whether in the classroom, at home or in the community, follow these recommendations to help young people contextualize voter suppression.
In the Classroom
Use this timeline as a guide to learn about the history of voter suppression.
- Education on the road: There are opportunities to learn about voting rights history at museums around the country. The National Voting Rights Museum and Institute in Selma, Alabama, offers a comprehensive look at the struggle for voting rights, details the Selma-to-Montgomery march and uplifts the people who changed history. The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, also provides a look into the 1965 Selma voting rights campaign.
Share stories of family members’ and ancestors’ experiences with voting, especially if they were subjected to voter suppression.
In the Community
- Whether you are a parent, community member or educator, advocate to include civics and voting rights education at community public spaces beyond the school, such as in community centers, libraries and museums.
- Learn about the voting experiences of people in your community. Have they had difficulty voting or getting registered to vote? Were there issues with polling locations, early voting or malfunctioning machines? Are there groups in your community that address issues with voting or provide assistance?
Power of the Vote: Lifting the Veil of White Supremacy, From the Ocoee Massacre to January 6
In this article, learn about the value of civics education, which must include complete, honest histories that encourage young people to use their right to vote.
Carol Anderson on Voter Suppression: A Q&A With the Author of ‘One Person, No Vote’
Professor and author Carol Anderson explains how voter suppression remains alive and well—and how it’s hurting us all.
Recovering and Teaching Local History
This article uplifts the importance of local history, as it profoundly affects our communities. It’s up to educators to learn and teach students about complex history in their own backyards.
The Courage To Teach Hard History
The central role that slavery played in the development of the United States is beyond dispute. Yet the practices of teaching and learning about this fact remain woefully inadequate. Professor Hasan Kwame Jeffries introduces Teaching Hard History: American Slavery, which can help change that. In this piece, Jeffries explains why he refers to this history as “hard.”
Teaching Local History in Tulsa
The history of the Tulsa Race Massacre was buried for 100 years. Learn how teachers in Tulsa, Oklahoma, are trying to change that and how their plans to teach honest history can be replicated everywhere.
Reflections on a Dream Deferred
The late Rep. John Lewis, who was an integral part of the civil rights movement, particularly the push for voting rights, explains in this piece how his activism was informed by Dr. Martin Luther King’s vision.
External Connected Resources
Eight Women’s Voting History Stories You May Not Know
Learn about women’s impact on voting rights history with this series of videos from the Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum.
A Noble Endeavor: Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Suffrage
It’s important to celebrate and uplift the stories of people like Ida B. Wells-Barnett who fought for the right to vote.
Fannie Lou Hamer’s Dauntless Fight for Black Americans’ Right to Vote
This Smithsonian Magazine article illuminates activist Fannie Lou Hamer’s fight for Black people’s voting rights.