From The Grio — Few moments in our country’s history can be compared to the dark and violent years of the Jim Crow era. During this ominous and shameful period, individuals and states made great efforts to deny African-Americans access to newfound constitutional rights, racial segregation was the norm and courts gave legal sanction to the principle of “separate but equal.”
Jim Crow, a name derived from a fictional minstrel character, has long been used to refer to this especially tortured time period in our nation’s story — one that was marked by violence, lynchings and the rise of the KKK.
Most recently, at a recent Campus Progress National, former President Bill Clinton observed that “There has never been in my lifetime, since we got rid of the poll tax and all the other Jim Crow burdens on voting, the determined effort to limit the franchise that we see today.”
Critics have attacked the former president for making a comparison between the legislative efforts of today and the Jim Crow days of the past. However, the ire of critics is both misplaced and misguided. Clinton’s effort to establish a parallel between the laws now being proposed to make voting more difficult and the efforts used during the Jim Crow era was intended to sound an alarm about a nation-wide strategy that threatens the exercise of our most important and central civil right — the right to vote.
The legislative efforts unfolding around the country include the adoption of mandatory government-issued photo id laws as a prerequisite to casting a ballot, proof of citizenship requirements for new voters, reductions in the hours for early voting and burdens imposed on those seeking to conduct voter registration drives. Collectively, these laws represent a new form of 21st century voter suppression that bear an uneasy resemblance to historic efforts to deny black voters access to the franchise.
For decades, blacks were denied access to the ballot box by a sophisticated matrix of Jim Crow restrictions that imposed burdensome hurdles and barriers that made voting difficult if not impossible. For example, literacy tests were written and administered in such a way that few whites failed, while blacks with college educations were routinely rejected. Understanding tests locked black voters out by requiring that anyone seeking to register to vote be able to read and write any article of the Constitution.
And most disturbingly, outright violence was resorted to keep blacks voters away from the ballot box. But, following the adoption of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and aggressive enforcement efforts by both the Justice Department and civil rights organizations, the era of Jim Crow as it relates to voting began to subside. It is unsurprising that states have now resorted to more sophisticated strategies for restricting voter access.