Black Voting Rights: A Social History

     Ralph Johnson Bunche, Black America's first professional political scientist, once declared that "the vote has become a fetish with many Negroes... ." In the United States both races have treated its possession as the key to freedom and justice. Some African Americans once felt that, properly placed, the ballot would be a magic wand capable of solving most of their problems, a conviction leading many of them to put their lives at risk. Many whites saw Blacks voting as a serious threat to white power, and often used that power to neutralize Black political assertion.

     The American independence revolution marked the Anglo-American shift from hereditary appointive to electorial representative government, a major shift toward the democracy of the "common man," people of African extraction excepted. From the colonial period down to World War II, the historical record suggests a white ethnic chauvinism correlates directly with desires for Black repression or exclusion. From the 1787 adoption of the U.S. Constitution to its Black citizenship amendment in 1868, only seven states permitted Black male voting, with three having color "penalties" exclusively for Black voters. Anglo-Saxon "nationalism" peaked during the era of Booker T. Washington, an era in which African Americans, North and South, were removed from American electoral political life. For a quarter century, Congress had no Black members. World War II and Black Reconstruction II were required to open up the electoral system so that, in some cases, the African American presence in the voting booths matters.

Russell L. Adams, Ph.D.
Chairman, Afro-American Studies Department
Howard University



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November 1999