Overcoming Racism: Voting Rights and Political Power

Submitted by: Jim Bacik

After the Civil War ended in 1865, black activists worked diligently to secure voting rights for freed black slaves. During the decade known as Radical Reconstruction (1867-1877), Congress passed legislation granting Black Americans the rights of citizenship (Thirteenth Amendment ratified 1865); due process under the law (the Fourteenth Amendment ratified 1870); and the right to vote (the Fifteenth Amendment ratified 1870). Despite this progress, southern states found ways to restrict black voting by enforcing laws requiring literacy tests and poll taxes. The Ku Klux Klan, a White Nationalist group established in 1865, promoted  extreme white supremacy views and relied on violent tactics including lynchings to intimidate black citizens and prevent them from voting.

These devious tactics were very successful in suppressing black voting in the southern states and limiting the number of black office holders. For example, in 1965, there were no black senators and only six blacks in the U.S. House.  Only 2% of the 15 thousand eligible black voters in Selma, Alabama voted that year.

On Sunday March 7, 1965, Martin Luther King led a group of 600 activists on a march from Selma heading for Montgomery, the state capital to register to vote. Shortly after departing Selma, state troopers viciously attacked the peaceful marchers forcing them to return to Selma. The brutal attack, recorded on television, caught the attention of President Lyndon Johnson, members of Congress and religious leaders around the country. Fueled by public outrage, Congress passed the 1967 Voting Rights Act that outlawed literacy tests and effectively ended poll taxes, making registration and voting easier for southern black citizens. Results were dramatic. In Mississippi, for example, the percentage of black citizens who voted increased from 6% in 1964 to almost 60% in 1969.

As the American bishops said in their pastoral letter on racism, Open Wide Your Hearts, we have made significant progress on overcoming racism in our country, but there is much more to be done. For instance, in 2023 we have 59 black representatives in the House but only three senators. There are numerous black mayors including those who have served in our largest cities, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston, but only three African Americans have been elected governor. Most striking on the positive side is that we twice elected a black man, Barak Obama, as president. Perhaps influenced by the presence of a black woman, Kamala Harris on the ballot in 2020, almost 50% of eligible black voters actually voted that year, matching the percentages of white voters who cast a ballot. We have indeed made progress but that should spur us to, as the bishops remind us, to strive even harder to overcome the evils of racism, our original sin.

When Pope Francis addressed the U.S. Congress in 2015, he raised up Dr. Martin Luther King, who led the Selma march fifty years ago, as an inspiration for all of us. He praised King for inspiring us with his dream of “full civil and political rights,” leading to “action, participation and commitment” which “awakens what is deepest and truest in the life of a people.” Amen.


Does reflecting on these mixed developments tend to energize or depress me?  

About the Author

Fr. James J. Bacik has served as a priest of the Diocese of Toledo since his ordination in 1962. He is a widely regarded theologian, writer, lecturer and pastor who served as campus minister and adjunct professor of humanities at the University of Toledo for more than 30 years. Fr. Bacik is an AUSCP member. Visit his website at frjimbacik.org.

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