The struggle to obtain the right to vote has occupied black southerners since reconstruction; it has been the central issue of the Civil Rights movement.
The pictures in this portfolio represent a structured narrative of progress toward black suffrage, beginning with examples of systematic exclusion of blacks from voter registration rolls and voter registration efforts in the face of this exclusion.
In Selma, Alabama where only 2% of eligible black voters had managed to register by 1964, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) initiated voter registration demonstrations that included a young boy who stood alone against Sheriff Jim Clark and his deputies. Children were often arrested and sometimes brutalized, as was five-year-old Anthony Quinn, who sat with his mother on the steps of the Mississippi Governor's mansion in Jackson to protest the election of five state senators from districts where blacks couldn't vote. Anthony was roughed up, and along with his mother and sisters arrested, and hauled away to jail. The key photograph of this attack won the World Press Photo Contest in 1965.
In the fall of 1963 Mississippi civil rights groups, frustrated by miniscule voting gains, developed a strategy to sidestep the segregated state voting apparatus by creating a parallel election process of their own. To counter the claims of white segregations that, "Our Negras just aren't interested in voting," they organized a "Freedom Vote" and in just a few months registered blacks all over the state, who voted 80,000 strong in a parallel ballot to the November election.
By the following Spring this effort had coalesced into a formal political organization, The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), which held precinct, county and state conventions to elect delegates, who would challenge the legitimacy of the regular Mississippi Democrats at the Party's national convention in Atlantic City that August. (Pictures of the MFDP challenge are contained in a separate portfolio.)
But the pivotal event in the struggle for voting rights was the Selma to Montgomery March that took place in March 1965. In the violence that preceded the March a black teenager and a white minister were murdered by Dallas County whites, and the first attempted march was beaten back in a bloody attack by Alabama troopers. These events forced the Federal Government to intervene with military protection for the marchers and convinced Congress and the Administration that nothing less than a new voting law would bring voting rights in the South into line with the rest of the nation.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed Congress in August, and within days federal registrars had set up shop in southern counties where blacks had systematically been denied the right to vote. In Madison County, Mississippi, a CORE worker canvassed a poor neighborhood of Canton, urging residents to visit the government office where they could register simply by signing their name, and then go directly to a voting booth to cast their ballot.
A year later in Black Belt Counties all over the south black citizens were organizing and beginning to form voting majorities. The first black officials they elected were the ones who affected their lives most directly: the sheriffs. A sea change was underway.
Depriving Blacks of access to the ballot was a primary tool for maintaining segregation in the South, and a major focus of the civil right struggle. The system, in place since the end of Reconstruction, began to crumble with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. How this came about is the great story of civil rights in the 1960's. Look also at the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party for related photographs.