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History: The Right to Vote

The right to vote wasn't just handed to Americans. They had to fight for it.

  • Grades: 6–8, 9–12

When the polls open on Election Day, every citizen over the age of 18 will be able to cast a vote. It is a right we take for granted, one that defines our nation as a democracy. But universal suffrage — letting everyone vote — did not appear overnight with the ratification of our Constitution. Two hundred years ago, you had to be white, male, and wealthy in order to vote. The three people profiled below dedicated their lives to changing that fact. Without them, suffrage might still be the privilege of a chosen few.

Thomas Dorr

A strange sight greeted any resident of Providence, Rhode Island, bold enough to be out on an eerie June night in 1842. Two brass cannons stood on College Street, pointing through a dense fog toward the city arsenal. Behind the weapons massed a huge crowd of workers and artisans, ready to march against their own government. It was 60 years after the American Revolution had supposedly established liberty across the United States. And yet, according to the mastermind of this little revolution, tyranny still reigned in Rhode Island.

Thomas Dorr, the renegade state legislator who had filled the streets with angry citizens, liked to point out the gap between the nation's ideals and its political practice. The Declaration of Independence declared that "All men are created equal," and demanded that government represent the people's interests. But in order to cast a vote in the new democracy, one had to be white (except in a few Northern states), male (except in New Jersey, where women voted until 1807), and a landowner (nearly everywhere). In some places, that left more than 85 percent of the adult population out of the political process.

Dorr, strangely enough, was not one of those left out. A Harvard University graduate and the son of a wealthy merchant, he made an unlikely revolutionary. But after a majority of landowning, white male voters elected him to the Rhode Island legislature, Dorr decided it was wrong for Rhode Island's poor to be denied the vote.

In October 1841, Dorr and voteless delegates from around the state met illegally and drafted a state constitution that gave the vote to all white males over 21. Six months later, two separate elections were held. Landowning voters elected Samuel Ward King as governor, while voters empowered by the "People's Charter" chose Dorr. Rhode Island had split down the middle.

Showdown in the Fog

In June, backed by 3,000 supporters and two stolen cannons, Dorr set out in the fog to disarm what he called the "illegal" government of Governor King. According to one observer, the showdown kept residents up all night "with watchful eyes and aching hearts, to await in the most painful suspense the dread spectacle of our fair city wrapt in flames and her streets deluged with blood."

The suspense did not last long. When Dorr's rusty cannons failed to fire, nearly everyone began to drift off, leaving Dorr and 50 of his supporters to drag the artillery back to their headquarters. Faced in the morning by 1,500 armed supporters of the King government, Dorr had to admit defeat. At his trial for treason, he spoke like a true martyr. "The servants of a righteous cause may fail or fall in the defense of it," he told the court. "But all the truth that it contains is indestructible."

Dorr went to prison, won a pardon after two years, and faded from public life. His cause, however, did seem indestructible. States that had not already dropped the property requirement began to do so quickly. Rhode Island held out until 1888. But by the time of the Civil War, nearly every white man in the country — rich or poor, rural or urban — could go to the polls on Election Day.

Alice Paul

In the fall of 1917, the dingy cells of Virginia's Occoquan workhouse for women held an unusual group of prisoners: a 60-year-old nurse, a wealthy widow from Philadelphia's high society, and a few wives of important Washington newspapermen. The leader of this refined bunch of jailbirds — a quiet, determined Quaker with a Ph.D. — did not fit the mold either. But Alice Paul and her comrades were not in jail for the usual reasons. They were there for demanding — insistently, loudly, and with political skill — that American women be given the right to vote.

Women had campaigned actively for suffrage in America since 1848, when delegates met at Seneca Falls, New York, for the first Woman's Rights Convention. But convincing a majority of men to empower women was a tall order. Most people, male and female alike, believed that women were biologically unfit for politics. According to one orator at a mass meeting in Albany, New York, "A woman's brain involves emotion rather than intellect, [which] painfully disqualifies her for the sterner duties to be performed by the intellectual faculties." Even those who thought women might be capable of political activity, often decided that the family had to come first. "Housewives!" announced a Massachusetts journal, "You do not need a ballot to clean out your sink spout."

In the face of such resistance, the suffrage movement made slow progress. Washington state gave women the vote in 1910; California followed in 1911; Kansas, Oregon, and Arizona did so in 1912. By 1917, Alice Paul was tired of waiting.

Picketing the President

On January 10, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson emerged from the White House to find Paul and a few dozen other women standing silently outside the gates. The banners they held proclaimed their purpose: "Mr. President, What Will You Do For Woman Suffrage?" and "How Long Must Women Wait for Liberty?"

For weeks, Wilson's response was gentlemanly. He smiled and tipped his hat as he drove out; on one cold, rainy day, he invited the women in for tea. But when the U.S. entered World War I in April with high idealism, the pickets became a distinct embarrassment. In June, police began arresting the protesters, and Americans were treated to the spectacle of their finest middle-class ladies consigned to work clothes and manacles.

Conditions in the jail soon leaked out to the press. The food was nauseating; worms infested the oatmeal and the soup. Prison officials were less than hospitable. When Alice Paul began a seven-month term in October, she launched a hunger strike and was immediately placed in the psychiatric ward. There, amid shrieks and moans from the truly insane, she was force-fed three times a day through a tube in her throat and wakened hourly during the night with a flashlight.

With a major public-relations problem on his hands, Wilson pardoned all of the jailed suffragists in November. Two months later, he came out in favor of a suffrage amendment to the Constitution. In January 1919, the bill passed the Senate, and on August 26, 1920, after two-thirds of the states had ratified the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, women won the right to vote.

Bob Moses

Bob Moses, still fresh from his job teaching high school in New York, hadn't been in Mississippi long before he found out how race relations operated there. In August 1961, in the tiny town of Liberty, Moses was doing his job as a civil rights worker, striding to the courthouse with two local black men who wanted to register to vote. On the way, they were intercepted by three whites, one of whom opened several gashes on Moses's head with the handle of a knife. Picking himself up, Moses continued on to the courthouse, where he and his two recruits were told the office was closed for the day. At a mass meeting later that week, with eight stitches in his head, the softspoken New Yorker laid out Mississippi's problem in no uncertain terms. "The law down here," he said, "is law made by white people, enforced by white people, for the benefit of white people. It will be that way until the Negroes begin to vote."

Unequal Opportunity

By the letter of the law, blacks in Mississippi had been allowed to vote since the passage of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution in 1868. Since then, however, every Southern state had found a way to keep blacks away from the voting booths. Blacks might have to interpret obscure sections of the state constitution and pay half a week's salary before they could register, while whites in the same town would simply have to sign their name. In the Southern states in 1964, fewer than 40 percent of black adults were registered to vote. In Mississippi, which stood dead last, the figure dropped to 6.4 percent.

By 1964, Moses and other members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had been going door to door for three years in the hot sun, trying to get people to register. Every week, police arrested and beat SNCC workers. In February 1963, Moses and two other organizers were driving along a dark road in the town of Greenwood when 13 .45-caliber bullets tore into their car, wounding the driver in the neck. By the summer of 1964, for all its trouble, the registration drive had yielded only 4,000 new voters.

Searching for a way to lessen the violence, or at least expose Mississippi to national attention, Moses brought 900 volunteers down from the North in a project that became known as Freedom Summer. "The death of a white college student would bring on more attention than for a black college student getting it," recalled co-organizer Dave Dennis. "That's cold, but that was speaking the language of this country." And when two white volunteers and a local black activist were killed at the start of the summer, Moses and Dennis were proved right. The media flocked to Mississippi to trumpet stories of racial violence across the United States.

The following year, a tired Bob Moses moved back North, frustrated with the slow pace of progress and increasing tensions between white and black activists. That summer, with Northern liberals up in arms over news of Southern racism, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The law pledged the federal government to enforce equal access to the ballot in the South.

Despite his departure, Bob Moses left a lasting mark in rural Mississippi. In the words of Unita Blackwell, a Mississippian who was inspired to register by Moses, "For black people in Mississippi, Freedom Summer was the beginning of a whole new era. People began to feel that they weren't just helpless anymore."

 

From Scholastic Update magazine

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