The 19th Amendment

8/20/2020, 6 p.m.
“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United 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 sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” — 19th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution

Just like anybody else, we like a good party. And in this time of COVID-19, that means a good Zoom party.

But as commemorations continue this week marking the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment — that’s the amendment to the U.S. Constitution giving women the right to vote — we offer a few sobering thoughts:

The amendment, while it enabled women to vote, did not guarantee that all women could vote. It made all laws unconstitutional that reserved the vote solely for men.

Women — and particularly African-American women — still had to deal with state laws that were designed as major obstacles to voting. Black women, particularly in the South, faced roadblocks to keep them from casting ballots, including intimidation tactics by the Ku Klux Klan and others, and racist laws such as poll taxes, literacy tests and laws that prevented the grandchildren of slaves from voting.

It wasn’t until the passage of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 that women — and men — of color were able to cast ballots in great numbers.

The work of Black suffragists gets little attention.

History books seem to focus on white women, particularly Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, when they tell the history of women mobilizing for the right to vote.

We need to balance that history with the story of the many Black women activists, including Mary McLeod Bethune, Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell, who were a major force in the push for the 19th Amendment. These women persevered even as white women attempted to relegate them to the back of the picket and parade lines. Voting rights didn’t always equate to social equality, particularly among white women from the South.

An interesting National Geographic article highlights teacher-turned-organizer Fannie Williams in St. Louis, who set up a “suffrage school” at the city’s Phillis Wheatley branch of the YWCA — this traditional Black branch of the “Y” named for the 18th century poet who had been enslaved. At the suffrage school, Ms. Williams helped women of color prepare for literacy tests and pay poll taxes in order to register to vote.

Efforts small and large, heralded and unheralded, went into the effort to get two-thirds of the states to ratify the 19th Amendment.

Virginia was NOT one of the 36 states to ratify the 19th Amendment.

Instead, Virginia voted on Feb. 12, 1920, to reject ratification despite the efforts of suffragists in the Com- monwealth.

During an August 1919 special session of the General Assembly, lawmakers passed a resolution calling the amend- ment “unwarranted, unnecessary, undemocratic and dangerous interference with the rights reserved to the States...”

Virginia, which historically has been intent on carrying people back into the past instead of moving them forward, didn’t ratify the 19th Amendment until 32 years after it had become part of the U.S. Constitution. Virginia finally ratified it in a symbolic vote on Feb. 21, 1952.

Efforts continue in 2020 to deny people the right to vote.

We have seen this locally with polling places running out of ballots, last-minute changes to polling places and long lines and waits at precincts with large numbers of minority voters.

Now, with November’s critical presidential election just more than two months away, President Trump and his min- ions have launched an all-out assault on voting. In addition to purging voter rolls and closing down polling places in minority neighborhoods, the Trump administration is trying to keep people from voting by cutting U.S. Postal Service operations during a time when up to 60 percent of voters are expected to cast their ballots by mail because of the coronavirus pandemic.

President Trump booted out the top USPS official and replaced him in May with Louis DeJoy, one of his flunkies who has no experience or qualifications to run the postal service other than he will do the president’s bidding.

Since then, the USPS has undergone cuts and changes designed to slow down the mail, including removing critical mail sorting equipment, removing postal boxes from minority neighborhoods, eliminating staff overtime and requiring that late-arriving mail be left for delivery another day.

The president also has withheld any federal COVID-19 relief funding for the USPS, all in an effort to threaten timely delivery of the mail, including ballots for voting. He claims voting by mail is rife with fraud, even as he and his family cast absentee ballots by mail for Florida.

This is a major threat to voting rights and to the fundamental principle of democracy that is the cornerstone of our nation.

We support Gov. Ralph S. Northam’s proposals now before the Virginia General Assembly during its special session as needed additional steps to protect voting and voting rights. Among them is a bill that would allow voter registrars in the state to set up collection points where people could submit their ballots and bypass the mail.

Voters in Richmond were able to drive up and drop off their ballots for the June primary election outside City Hall. It ensured that every vote would be counted and not delayed or lost because of the Trump shenanigans with the postal service.

As Black women learned 100 years ago with the passage of the 19th Amendment, the right to vote can be trampled on by people with ill intent no matter what the Constitution states.

We must continue to work today to make sure that democracy works for all and that the liar in the White House doesn’t steal this election.