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Vol. 80/No. 33      September 5, 2016

(feature article)

Working-class fight for right to vote marks US history

The fight to win and extend the right to vote has marked the class struggle in the U.S. from the first American Revolution and the Civil War to overthrow slavery through the fight for women’s suffrage and voting rights for 18-year-olds. This key battle for the working class continues today against new restrictions and aggressive efforts to purge workers from the voting rolls.

Male residents of the 13 original American colonies of the British monarchy were required to own a certain amount of land or personal property or pay a tax to vote. Catholics were barred from voting in five colonies and Jews in four.

When the American Revolution triumphed, the new rulers drew up a constitution that lacked clear political protections against state attacks on basic rights. Rural farmers launched Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts in 1786, arms in hand, protesting high taxes and mounting debts, helping to force the addition of the Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution in 1791.

The Constitution gave states the right to regulate who may vote, guaranteeing the southern slave owners’ grip on power. Most states limited the franchise to Caucasian men of property. When George Washington was elected president in 1789, only 6 percent of the population could vote. Property restrictions remained on the books for decades.

Every new state that joined the Union after 1819 denied Blacks the right to vote. In the 1850s the first literacy tests were adopted in Connecticut and Massachusetts, aimed at denying Irish-Catholic immigrants the vote.

In the face of moves by the slavocracy to expand its territory in the first half of the 19th century, opposition to slavery grew among Northern industrialists, the growing working class, Midwestern farmers and others. The abolitionist movement also gave impetus to the fight to extend the vote to women. In 1848, delegates at the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, called for women’s suffrage.

The victory of the second American Revolution — the Union triumph over the slaveholders, followed by more than a decade of Radical Reconstruction governments backed by northern troops across the South — opened opportunities for Blacks to vote, hold office and advance political and social fights.

The Radical Reconstruction regimes passed laws advancing rights that benefited all toilers — Caucasian workers and farmers as well as freed slaves. This included establishing the first free public schools in the South, public hospitals and medical care for the poor.

However, the right of African-Americans to vote was not formalized in the Constitution for almost five years after the Confederate surrender in 1865. The 15th Amendment, adopted in February 1870, stated, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

The 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, had guaranteed U.S. citizenship to freed slaves. A year earlier, the Reconstruction Act adopted by Congress made suffrage for Black males a precondition for readmission to the Union of former Confederate states.

But between 1863 and 1870 proposals to enfranchise Blacks were defeated in more than 15 northern states and territories. Outside the South only Iowa and Minnesota adopted universal male suffrage. When the 15th Amendment was submitted to states for ratification in early 1869, it was initially rejected by legislatures in New York, New Jersey, Ohio, California, Delaware and others.

The rise of racist resistance to the gains of Blacks and the spread of reactionary thug outfits like the Ku Klux Klan dealt blows to efforts to forge common struggles of Black and Caucasian working people in the South. The Radical Reconstruction governments were overthrown when northern capitalists, fearing deepening workers struggles, pulled out federal troops in 1877. This was the worst setback for the U.S. working class in its history.

The victorious rulers in the South, utilizing the Klan and other racist outfits, imposed Jim Crow segregation and crushed the voting rights of African-Americans. Resistance by Blacks, often backed by Caucasian farmers, was drowned in blood.

Lengthy residence requirements, poll taxes, literacy tests and property requirements were implemented in 1890 in Mississippi, and spread across the South. In Louisiana, the number of Black registered voters fell from 130,000 to 1,342. By 1940, only 3 percent of eligible African-Americans in the South were registered.

Jim Crow ruled for over 70 years. But with the rise of mass battles to throw off colonial rule after the second imperialist world war, struggles for Black rights, including the right to vote, gained ground in the South. In the 1950s and ’60s a massive proletarian Black-led civil rights movement destroyed Jim Crow segregation, leading to passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

These revolutionary developments, which had wide sympathy among workers across the country, had a profound effect on social relations and politics.

Fight for women’s suffrage

In the early 1900s, growing numbers of working-class women, unionists and socialists threw their weight into the fight for women’s suffrage. With passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, women won the right to vote.

In 1971, as hundreds of thousands of youth were drafted into the U.S. army to fight and die in Vietnam to defend Washington’s imperialist interests, and mass protests grew in the streets at home and on military bases worldwide, the rulers felt the pressure to extend voting rights to 18-year-olds.

Defense of the fundamental right to vote continues on the agenda for the working class today.
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Struggle over right to vote in US continues today
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