Two hundred years ago, you had to be white, male, and wealthy in order to vote. Much has changed in the past two centuries. Much is still to be done. September 25th is the first ever National Voter Registration Day, and Rally.org is one of many organizations exercising our civic bona fides by promoting your right to vote.
The story of voter rights in America centers on the efforts of many people – but two leaders of their respective movements 40 years apart stand out.
Alice Paul led the women’s suffrage movement in America in the early part of the 20th Century. In 1917, the well-heeled Quaker with a Ph.D. from Philadelphia organized a silent protest in front of President Woodrow Wilson’s White House. Day after day, Wilson saw the banner “How Long Must Women Wait for Liberty?”
As the US entered World War I under Wilson’s leadership, he felt the protest was becoming an embarrassment, and he sent in police to arrest the women. Paul and her crew were sent to jail – a woman’s workhouse – where the food was repulsive and the jailers were hostile. Paul began a hunger strike and was sent to the psychiatric ward where she was restrained, force fed, and mentally abused.
As word leaked out of the perverse treatment of the suffragists, Wilson pardoned the women, and two months later came out in favor of a Constitutional amendment. One year later, on August 26, 1920, women won the right to vote through the 19th Amendment to the Constitution.
44 years later, the country’s attention focused on Mississippi and the injustice facing black voters. Despite the 14th Amendment’s guarantee, by 1964, fewer than 7% of blacks in Mississippi were registered to vote. Racist southern leaders managed to continually defy the Constitution, and it took Bob Moses, a teacher from New York and his fellow organizers of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, to push the issue to national attention.
The “Freedom Summer” of 1964 brought hundreds of white northerners to the South to protest inequities and lead voter registration drives. When two white volunteers and a local black activist were killed, the media attention drove national action.
President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965. The Act pledged federal enforcement of equal access to the ballot in the South.
On September 25th, visit Rally.org to register to vote. It’s a right that has been dearly earned by so many Americans. Don’t waste an opportunity to have your voice heard and your vote counted.