While America relished in the historic moment of Sen. Barack Obama’s triumph over Sen. Hillary Clinton last Tuesday, it is unclear whether the country remembers the roadblocks that had to be cleared or the battles that were waged to solidify Obama’s success.
A little more than four decades ago, it was uncommon to see a black man vote without intimidation, let alone run for office. Now, 68% of voters say they believe America is ready for a black president, according to a CBS poll.
This recent reality is an indirect result of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which some call the single most effective piece of civil rights legislation ever passed by Congress. The act prohibited the use of violence and intimidation to deny a person the right to vote.
Civil rights organizations rallied their resources to push voting rights to the forefront of issues leading up to the 1964 presidential election.
“Barack is standing on the shoulders of Fannie Lou Hamer and the named and unnamed people who worked behind and in front of the scenes so that we could be empowered to have our voices heard,” says Desiree S. Pedescleaux, president of the National Conference of Black Political Scientists.
Obama’s speech during the 2004 Democratic National Convention helped ignite his popularity and set the stage for his eventual bid for the White House. Similarly, in 1964, Fannie Lou Hamer, a sharecropper and civil rights activist, made one of the most notable speeches ever broadcast from the floors of the DNC. In her speech, Hamer questioned whether this was really “the land of the free and the home of the brave” when lives were threatened because of attempting to vote.
Despite losing her job and receiving a savage beating prompted by her voter registration efforts, Hamer joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and continued to register others to vote in Mississippi. She organized the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party because the Mississippi Democratic Party refused to seat any black delegates. Hamer’s speech in 1964 and the work of the Freedom Democrats influenced the Democratic Party to adopt a clause which demanded equal representation at the 1968 delegation.
Between 1965 and 1988, black voter registration rates increased by 63% in Mississippi alone. In five southern states, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas, the total increase of black elected officials between 1970 and 2000 was more than tenfold.
“Prior to the Voting Rights Act there were about 70 black elected officials. It soared to around 2,000 soon after, and now there are some 10,000 changing the law to bring down the barriers,” says Michael Fauntroy, assistant professor of public policy at George Mason University.
The act helped open the door for the first black mayors and congressmen including politicians such as Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, the first black senator elected since Reconstruction, and Cleveland’s Carl B. Stokes, the nation’s first black mayor.
“[Former] mayors such as David Dinkins [of New York] and Tom Bradley [of Los Angeles] made Americans look at black elected officials in different ways. Even those