An Unending Battle for the Ballot: The Fight to Vote and the Civil Rights Movement by Julia Frankel)

History Social Science Content Standards:

11.10: Students analyze the development of federal civil rights and voting rights.

Reading Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies 6-12

(2) Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.

(7) Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (eg. visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.

(9) Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or an event, noting discrepancies among sources

Overview

This lesson plan aims to introduce students to the black struggle for enfranchisement in a way that does not minimize the efforts of black activists, nor does it declare enfranchisement officially won at any point in the story of voting rights expansion. The goal is to help students understand the violent effects of voter suppression in the south, and how black activists working for groups such as SNCC and CORE were able to combat police brutality, violence at the polls, poll taxes, literacy tests, gerrymandering, and other voter suppression techniques through non-violent means–by educating and registering their members to vote, and eventually by putting their bodies on the line. The history and argument presented in this lesson also aims to tell the story of the fight for the ballot in a realistic way; it acknowledges the effects of the Voting Rights Act in increasing black voting participation in the south, but also stresses that black enfranchisement has remained and remains limited and threatened in our current democracy.

Students should not only gain knowledge of historical content through this lesson plan. Teachers will share with students a variety of primary and secondary sources—videos, articles, voter registration materials, data, historical journal articles—intended to increase student proficiency with a wide variety of sources. It is expected that student comprehension of such sources will be stressed throughout the lesson, and teachers should aid in integrating knowledge retrieved from various sources into a cohesive understanding of the struggle for enfranchisement.

Essential Understanding

Students will investigate the localized, often violent effects of voter suppression techniques prior to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, begin to understand how black activist groups such as CORE and SNCC combatted poll taxes, literacy tests and other restrictive measures, and ultimately understand the impetus for the Voting Rights Act and how–even after Act’s passage–voting rights for blacks remain jeopardized.

Questions

  1. How were blacks extralegally and legally restricted from registering to vote and voting?
  2. How did black activism seek to combat these restrictions? How were poll taxes and literacy taxes circumnavigated? What were the tactics of groups such as CORE and SNCC in addressing black disenfranchisement?
  3. What was the impetus for the 1965 Voting Rights Act? How was black protest largely responsible for the passage of this act?
  4. Since the Act’s passage, how has its scope and reach been limited? What is the state of black enfranchisement in America today?

Glossary (key terms the students need defined)

Gerrymandering: altering the boundaries of a political district or parish in order to favor one group–or one race–of voters.

Congress of Racial Equality (CORE): African-American civil rights organization that played an instrumental role in Louisiana and Mississippi voter registration efforts, notably the Mississippi Freedom Summer. CORE is also famous for organizing the first Freedom Rides, an effort to end segregation on interstate travel.

Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee: African-American civil rights organization which rose to fame through its organization of student sit-ins. It was involved with voter registration efforts, though with a more radical vision than groups such as CORE. SNCC was also involved in CORE’s Freedom Rides, the Mississippi Freedom Summer, and the March on Washington.

At-large Elections: In at-large elections, district lines do not matter, and victories are won by receiving a majority of all votes cast in a single election. In this way, the votes of minority voters, who often reside in single districts, are rendered effectively meaningless because the majority’s votes will guarantee the majority 100% representation.

Poll taxes: Poll Taxes were levied starting in the 1890s in order to prevent African-Americans from voting by financially discriminating against them. Under a poll tax system, eligible voters must pay taxes prior to casting their votes. Grandfather clauses, or clauses pertaining to people who had a voting ancestor prior to the Civil War, allowed many poor whites to vote but excluded all blacks. These taxes were outlawed under the Voting Rights Act.

Literacy tests: Tests black voters were forced to take in many southern states before being able to register to vote. These tests were often extremely difficult, and whites were often excused from such tests through grandfather clauses or findings of “good moral character.” These tests were outlawed under the Voting Rights Act.

John Lewis: Civil Rights leader who currently serves as a congressman for Georgia. He served as chairman of SNCC and helped organize the Freedom Rides, the Selma voter registration initiative, and the March on Washington.

Introduction

Though the Fifteenth amendment, passed in 1870 during the Reconstruction era, banned states from disenfranchising voters “on account of race, color or previous servitude,” its passage did little to actually empower the black vote in the United States. By leaving the door open to all sorts of discriminatory voting procedures, the amendment ushered in an age of white violence at the polls, implementation of poll taxes and literacy tests, and gerrymandered voting districts.

Through this lesson, you will come to understand the ways–some more insidious than others–that the black vote was limited and policed in Southern states until even after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. By first taking a localized look at voter suppression in Louisiana, you will understand its numerous consequences. In parishes such as Iberville, blacks were effectively disenfranchised, and strategically gerrymandered out of cities such as Plaquemine, hindering their access to city services such as lighting or sewage. In order to gain representation to protest these injustices, they needed to be able to vote. However, when protesting their disenfranchisement to vote, many black residents of Plaquemine were met with police brutality. When citizens did make it to the polls, they faced white violence, both physical and psychological. However, black protest was organized, and in Plaquemine took form in a massive voter registration campaign led by CORE, which you will examine the intricacies of using primary sources.

CORE’s voter outreach efforts were mirrored by groups such as SNCC, which strategically fought against the poll taxes and literacy tests implemented by state and local governments in the south by educating their members about what to expect while registering. SNCC separated itself from other, more mainstream civil rights enfranchisement efforts by articulating a radical vision of transforming political institutions through the empowerment of the black vote. In this lesson, you will have the opportunity to understand the barrier that literacy tests posed to black enfranchisement by taking a test yourself. You will also learn the more mainstream narrative of the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act by examining the Selma marches and the Mississippi Freedom Summer, events usually credited as the impetus for the Act’s passage. By examining these events–which, indeed, did play a large role in leading to the passage of the Voting Rights Act–alongside lesser known efforts such as those of CORE in Plaquemine and SNCC in Alabama, you will begin to understand the many forms of black protest which, unhampered by intense persecution and numerous setbacks, was able to persevere and yield results.

Finally, you will examine the ramifications of the Voting Rights Act, noting first how the Act vastly increased black voting in the South, a trend countless history textbooks will show you. However, you will then dig more deeply into the true results of the Act’s passage, examining data that critically analyzes the scope of the Act. You will begin to question the predominant strain of historical knowledge which addresses the passage of the Voting Rights Act as a quick fix to decades of black disenfranchisement and persecution at the polls. You will examine how the provisions of the Act were diluted through the implementation of further gerrymandering along with at-large elections, and nullified in the court case of Shelby County v. Holder. Through it all, you will come to understand the relentless struggle of black Americans for access to the ballot box, for fair elections, and, ultimately, for true political power. You will recognize the true power of your vote and will eventually have the opportunity to register or preregister to vote in California, if you so choose.

 

Materials

Video: The Civil Rights Act of 1964: A Long Struggle for Freedom

CORE Pamphlet, “Louisiana Story,” 1963

Louisiana Parish Map with Parish Seat Cities

From Boycotts to Ballots, Steven F. Lawson

Alabama Literacy Test, circa mid-1960s

SNCC Voter Registration Materials pages 1, 3, 55

Voter Registration and the Civil Rights Movement, Your Vote, Your Voice

Video: Martin Luther King, speech in Montgomery, AL 1965

Key Excerpts from the Voting Rights Act

19 Maps and Charts that Explain Voting in America, Vox

Voting Rights on Trial On the Bayou, The Atlantic

California State Voter Registration and Pre-registration

Activities

Day One: Case Study: Voter Suppression in Louisiana

Students will begin by watching the 6 minute video entitled “The Civil Rights Act of 1964: A Long Struggle for Freedom.” This short film first depicts Ronnie Moore, CORE’s Louisiana field secretary, discussing the necessity for black enfranchisement. Moore states that black protection hinges on the right to vote. The film then includes clips of James Farmer, CORE Executive Director, speaking in Plaquemine, Louisiana in 1963, encouraging black rally attendees to boycott Plaquemine goods until they are no longer gerrymandered out of the city (Total: 6 minutes).

Once the video has finished, the students will be instructed to get into groups of 3 or 4 and, in their groups, do two things (Total: 5 minutes):

  1. Discuss what they already know about black voting rights before the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and how they think black disenfranchisement contributed to/aided the persecution of blacks in the south before civil rights were gained.
  2. Jot down on a piece of looseleaf what ideas/terms they did not understand from the video. As the video is a snapshot of history, unknown ideas/terms will likely revolve around CORE’s specific Louisiana voter registration drive and the laws/district lines which suppressed black votes in Louisiana prior to this period. Students will then turn these papers of looseleaf into the teacher.

The teacher will then scan through the looseleaf papers, ensuring that most student inquiries will be answered by the following primary source document about to be distributed. The teacher will then make clear to the class that they will be honing in on the voting struggle in Louisiana as a case study in black voter suppression, voter registration attempts, and voting suppression tactics (Total: 5 minutes).

The teacher will then distribute Primary Source 1–a pamphlet written by James Farmer detailing CORE’s efforts to register blacks in Louisiana published in 1963, roughly a year after the CORE voter registration campaign began in Louisiana. Students will have 10 minutes to read the primary source document. While students are reading, the teacher will project a map of Louisiana parishes on the board (linked in sources) so students can understand where places mentioned in the document such as Iberville and West Feliciana are. The teacher should make sure to issue a content warning for use of the n-word in the source (Total: 15 minutes).

The teacher will then lead a discussion regarding the source by asking the following questions:

  1. How did lack of access to voting rights hamper black access to other fundamental city services in Plaquemine, such as lighting, sewage, and good schools? (Total: 7 minutes) — Goal: Students will begin to understand the fundamental role black enfranchisement played in the larger struggle for civil rights, and will start to make connections between voting, representation, and liberation.
  2. In what ways, both legal and extralegal, was black voting power threatened and diminished? (Total: 7 minutes) — Goal: Students will begin to grasp how institutions often regarded as neutral, actively oppressed black voting power through gerrymandering, police brutality, and state-sanctioned violence. They will also understand how unrestricted white violence and scare tactics directed toward blacks attempting to register to vote served further to discourage the black vote through psychological intimidation and threats.
  3. How did the black community in Plaquemine resist–and, indeed, persist–through these threats to their enfranchisement? (Total: 10 minutes) — Goal: Students will begin to understand the resilience of black voter registration efforts (in this case, those of CORE), and will begin to see the fight to vote as a long, persistent effort on the part of black activists, and less as the singular passage of the Voting Rights Act by white government officials.

Once the conversation has come to a close, the teacher will discuss how the case study of Louisiana–and specifically, Iberville parish and Plaquemine–reflects the larger struggle for black voting rights, a struggle that began long before the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and continued after its passage. The teacher will then assign the homework reading.

Homework: Read the chapter entitled “From Boycotts to Ballots” from the larger book “Civil Rights Crossroads: Nation, Community, and the Black Freedom Struggle,” by Stephen F. Lawson. Pay special attention to Lawson’s description of the SNCC, and how SNCC used enfranchisement as a radical tool for transforming political institutions. Make sure to focus also on SNCC’s Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party as an example of black electoral activism creating true representation, despite the efforts of white politicians to exclude the MFDP.

Day 2: Formalized Voter Suppression Techniques and Responsive Black Activism

The lesson will begin with the teacher imitating a poll officer in administering Part A of an Alabama literacy test, during which the teacher will read out a complicated section of the United States Constitution which students will be instructed to copy exactly. The section will not be read twice. A common section used is copied below:

SECTION 260: The income arising from the sixteenth section trust fund, the surplus revenue fund, until it is called for by the United States government, and the funds enumerated in sections 257 and 258 of this Constitution, together with a special annual tax of thirty cents on each one hundred dollars of taxable property in this state, which the legislature shall levy, shall be applied to the support and maintenance of the public schools, and it shall be the duty of the legislature to increase the public school fund from time to time as the necessity therefor and the condition of the treasury and the resources of the state may justify; provided, that nothing herein contained shall be so construed as to authorize the legislature to levy in any one year a greater rate of state taxation for all purposes, including schools, than sixty-five cents on each one hundred dollars’ worth of taxable property; and provided further, that nothing herein contained shall prevent the legislature from first providing for the payment of the bonded indebtedness of the state and interest thereon out of all the revenue of the state.

The teacher will then pass out copies of Parts B and C of a 1965 Alabama literacy test (answers will be whited-out). Students will be given 10-15 minutes to work independently and complete the 32-question test. The teacher will then project the section of the Constitution that was read to the class, and ask students to evaluate whether they copied the section perfectly. The answers to Parts B and C will then be projected, and students will grade their own tests. If students got more than seven questions wrong and/or did not copy the portion of the Constitution exactly, they have failed the test.

Students will be instructed to put their heads down at their desks and raise their hands if they failed the test. Most students will raise their hands. The teacher will instruct students to open their eyes, and look around at all the raised hands. (Total: 25 minutes)

The teacher will then lead the class in debriefing this activity and leading a discussion guided by the following questions and goals (Total: 10 minutes):

  1. Does giving this test to black voters appear legal under the 14th and 15th amendments? Why or why not? — Goal: students will understand how states such as Alabama effectively violated the law by giving literacy tests to blacks attempting to register.
  2. Who do you think this test would effectively bar from voter registration? How would it work to limit the black vote? — Goal: students will begin to understand literacy tests rendered many blacks essentially disenfranchised, and will recognize the impetus for the Voting Rights Act.

The teacher will then pass out materials from SNCC’s voter education program, which instruct blacks on how to pass literacy tests and deal with poll taxes. Students will have 10 minutes to read through the SNCC materials. The teacher will then instruct students to turn and talk to those at their tables about the following questions (Total: 20 minutes):

  1. How did SNCC anticipate the challenges of black voter registration and seek to prepare members for such challenges?
  2. How did poll taxes also disenfranchise blacks and how did SNCC navigate such challenges?
  3. Knowing what we know from the Lawson reading, how did SNCC take the ideologies of CORE one step further? What was SNCC’s ultimate goal in helping register their members to vote?

Finally, the teacher will regain the class’s attention and ask tables to share out what they discussed. The teacher should take care to ensure that SNCC’s voter registration strategies are brought up, as is the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which is covered extensively in the Lawson reading. Students should emphasize how SNCC used voter registration and preparation to articulate a radical vision of transformed political institutions and electoral possibilities. The teacher will then assign the homework (Total: 5 minutes).

Homework: To gain a broader vision of the impetus for the Voting Rights Act, students will read a brief summary of the Selma marches and the Mississippi Freedom Summer from Your Voice, Your Vote, an organization affiliated with the league of Women Voters. They will then read an interview with John Lewis in which he attributes the Act’s passage to the Selma marches and the Mississippi Freedom Summer, and watch Martin Luther King’s famous speech in Montgomery, Alabama in 1965.

Day 3: The Passage and Aftermath of the Voting Rights Act

The teacher will begin by passing out handouts containing key excerpts from the Voting Rights Act and Graph #5 from the Vox article in “Sources” depicting the increase in black voter registration in Southern states due to the Act’s passage. Students will be instructed to read and annotate these excerpts independently, and then examine the data together briefly and share out what they discovered in a class discussion. Topics including the Act’s elimination of literacy tests and poll taxes, Section 5 of the Act mandating federal preclearance for proposed changes to state and local voting procedures, and punishments for voter suppression. Students should also notice the impact that the Act had on black voter registration from the graph. (Total time: 15 minutes).

The class will then examine Graph #11 from the Vox article, which shows the states with new voting restrictions since the 2010 elections. Students will be asked to think critically about the graph’s relationship with the excerpts of the Act they just read. Students should notice that the graph conflicts with Section 5 of the Act (Total time: 5 minutes).

Students will then read aloud as a class an Atlantic article entitled “Voting Rights on Trial on the Bayou,” by Vann R. Newkirk II, which details the ways in which the Voting Rights Act did not fully empower the black vote, and explains further attempts to limit black votes after the passage of the Act such as at-large elections and the Shelby County v. Holder decision, which struck down Section 5 of the Act (Total time: 10 minutes).

The teacher will then lead the class in a final discussion, moderating the conversation with the following guiding questions:

  1. How have black voting rights improved/been extended since the time period prior to the passage of the Voting Rights Act? — Goal: When discussing how black voting rights have improved, students should cite police brutality and gerrymandering faced by blacks prior to the passage of the Act, and may also mention literacy tests, poll taxes, and general white violence that blacks encountered while trying to register and vote.
  2. How has black activism been responsible for the extension of voting rights? — Goal: Students should be able to mention the organizing efforts of CORE and SNCC to register voters in southern states, and events such as the Selma marches and the Mississippi Freedom Summer.
  3. In what ways was the Voting Rights Act limited in scope? How has its reach been limited since its passage? — Goal: Students should be able to discuss the effects of Shelby County v. Holder in eliminating preclearance requirements, and should be able to give some examples from the Atlantic article of ways in which voter suppression continues–notably, gerrymandering, at-large elections, and multimember districts.

Finally, the teacher will pass out voter registration forms to those who are old enough to vote, and should also distribute pre-registration forms to those 16 years or older. Everyone should be encouraged to register to vote, exempting those who may not be citizens of the United States.

Additional sources

“Alabama Voter Application Form (c. 1965).” Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement — Alabama Voter Registration Application, Tougaloo College, http://www.crmvet.org/info/litapp.htm.

Garrow, David J. “The Voting Rights Act in Historical Perspective.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly, vol. 74, no. 3, 1990, pp. 377–398. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40582187.

 

Santoro, Wayne A. “The Civil Rights Movement and the Right to Vote: Black Protest, Segregationist Violence and the Audience.” Social Forces, vol. 86, no. 4, 2008, pp. 1391–1414. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20430815.

“Shelby County v. Holder.” Oyez, http://www.oyez.org/cases/2012/12-96. Accessed 6 May. 2019.

“Shelby County v. Holder.” Shelby County v. Holder | Brennan Center for Justice, 4 Aug. 2018, http://www.brennancenter.org/legal-work/shelby-county-v-holder.

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