It has been 140 years since the 15th Amendment was ratified, but we still have a ways to go to ensure the right to vote.

The 15th Amendment became part of the U.S. Constitution on March 30, 1870. It states: “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.” And it adds: “The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

With voting rights granted to former slaves, the change to the American political landscape was dramatic. There were more than 1,500 black political officeholders during Reconstruction, all of them Republicans. They included a governor and a lieutenant governor, state legislators and members of Congress and the Senate.

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Despite the new voting rights protections guaranteed under the 15th Amendment, there was considerable Southern white resistance to black participation in American civic and political life. Groups such as the Ku Klux Klan were formed to intimidate blacks. And as federal troops left the South and Reconstruction came to a close, the South descended into an era of Jim Crow segregation. States engaged in the wholesale disenfranchisement of blacks, wiping them off the political map.

It was not until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that full citizenship rights would be restored to black people. During the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, dozens of people died securing that right.

And sadly, now, in 2010, remnants of Jim Crow remain.

An estimated 5.3 million Americans are denied the right to vote because of felony convictions, including 4 million who are out of prison. A third of them are black. That means one in eight black men can’t vote.

“As of 2004, more African-American men were disenfranchised (due to felon disenfranchisement laws) than in 1870, the year the 15th Amendment was ratified,” says Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”

Some politicians want to return us to the days of Jim Crow laws. At a Tea Party convention in Nashville, Tenn., in February, former Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo told an audience he lamented that “we do not have a civics, literacy test before people can vote in this country.” He added, “People who could not even spell the word ‘vote’ or say it in English, put a committed socialist ideologue in the White House.”

Tancredo’s objectionable statement was a not-so-subtle reference to literacy tests, a weapon of choice used by Jim Crow states to disenfranchise black voters.

On the 140th anniversary of the 15th Amendment, Tancredo and others would have us turn back the clock, and return to a time when people of color were denied the right to vote.

Let’s expand democracy rather than shrink it.

David A. Love is a writer based in Philadelphia, and the executive editor of BlackCommentator.com. His blog is davidalove.com. He can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

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By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).


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