Men and Women Fought (and Died) for Your Right to Vote

The right to vote is a rare thing in history. Sure, the Athenians had a short-lived democracy in the fifth century B.C. But for most people who have walked this earth, their lives have been ruled by some incarnation of kings, queens, warlords, czars, emperors, despots, tyrants, pharaohs, strongmen, presidents-for-life, and other assorted gangsters.

It’s a remarkable era we live in when the right to vote is so widespread. It’s also remarkable how shoddily we often treat this right. We take it for granted. In fact, in 2016 more people turned their backs on the hard-won right to vote than cast a ballot for our current president. Here are the numbers: 76.2 million Americans of voting age or older are not registered to vote; that’s 14 million more than the 63 million people who voted for Trump.

The next time someone you know thinks about sleeping in on Election Day or heading to an early movie instead of the polling place, remind them how these three groups suffered and even died to have their votes counted:

Women

In the United States, women didn’t have the right to vote in national elections until about 100 years ago. Women (and many men who supported them) fought hard for this right. The movement in the U.S. started in earnest at the Seneca Falls Convention, a women’s rights event held in 1848. The battle for the right to vote moved forward in fits and starts. It wasn’t until the World War I, when women filled the jobs of male factory workers who were fighting overseas, that the suffrage movement gained genuine momentum in the U.S. During the war, the National Women’s Party picketed the White House in 1917 demanding the right to vote. More than 200 women were arrested in the protest, and about 100 jailed. Some of those imprisoned, led by suffragist Alice Paul, began a hunger strike, and eventually many of the hunger strikers were force-fed behind bars. The publicity around this protest was a key driver in gaining support for the 19th Amendment, which was finally ratified in 1920.

African-Americans

In the years immediately following the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870, which guaranteed the right to vote for every man, no matter his race, newly freed slaves used the ballot box to elect a help number of African-American representatives to Congress. But African-Americans’ access to the polls was short-lived — and so was their representation in Washington. When Reconstruction ended in 1877, white Southerners blocked African-Americans from voting with a combination of laws (such as grandfather clauses, poll taxes, and literacy tests) and terrorist threats (such as the Ku Klux Klan and lynchings). In the mid-20th century African-Americans began en masse fighting for their civil rights — with voting rights chief among them. At the famed Selma March in 1965, civil rights leader John Lewis was beaten by a nightstick and suffered a fractured skull. Other activists fared far worse. Medgar Evers, an NAACP leader, was shot dead in the driveway of his Jackson, Mississippi, home in 1963. And Martin Luther King, Jr., after being arrested dozens of times as part of his practice of civil disobedience, was assassinated on a Memphis hotel balcony in 1968. These sacrifices — and those of many others — led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that has helped protect the right of African-Americans to vote in the United States.

Revolutionary War Soldiers

One of the battle cries of the Founding Fathers was “no taxation without representation.” The Revolutionary War was fought so that the citizens of the new nation would have a say  — that is, a vote — in how their government was run. Many men shed blood to establish the United States as a democratic republic. In all, 25,000 American soldiers are estimated to have died in the Revolutionary War, ultimately sacrificing themselves to give the vote to hundreds of millions. One of the Revolutionary War dead was Nathan Hale, a captain in Washington’s Continental Army. Legend has it that before he was hanged by the British as a spy, he proclaimed, “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country.”

Remind your friends thinking about skipping the election that they have a very hard-earned right to vote. They should use it.

 

Photo Credit: InSapphoWeTrust

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