Voting rights laws seem to be under attack, with several states enacting new laws restricting voting access. As of June 21, 2021, 17 states have enacted 28 new restrictive laws against voting. More laws are indeed on the way as state legislatures remain in session.

Understanding the struggle for voting rights laws is critical to uphold voting equality and maintain democracy. Remembering the road to equal voting rights is especially important for Black people and other marginalized groups who have historically had to fight for equality.

This post highlights historical legal cases related to voting, honoring Frederick Douglass, and the anniversary of his first address on August 11, 1841. Allow this summary to remind you about the importance of exercising your legal right to vote.

Who Is Frederick Douglass?

Frederick Douglass was an abolitionist leader and writer who focused on voting rights. Born a slave, he was unsure of his exact date of birth and had no connections to his immediate family. He never knew his father nor saw his mother after the age of seven.

Douglass taught himself to read in his teenage years, marking the beginnings of his desire for freedom. He escaped slavery after finding the courage to fight back and stand for himself. Douglass then traveled from Maryland to Delaware and eventually arrived in New York to settle with fellow abolitionists.

Douglass sought slavery’s eradication before and during the Civil War. He continued championing equality and human life even after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1862 and up until he passed away in 1895 on his way to a political convention.

Chain of Highlight Events

Frederick Douglass’s legacy as an author and leader lives on and inspires activists to keep the civil rights movement alive. Here are a few significant events throughout his life highlighting his most outstanding achievements.

First Address on Nantucket Island in 1841

Frederick Douglass first gained public attention for his speech on Nantucket Island in 1841. He addressed a predominantly white audience at the annual Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society convention.

This address earned Douglass many skeptics refusing to believe a former slave could deliver a memorable and impactful speech. Yet, people noticed him, and he began his path to becoming an established lecturer.

Actively Supported Women’s Rights and Suffrage

Frederick Douglass was the only Black man to attend the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. The convention spanned two days, July 19 and July 20, where women’s rights activists in New York gathered to discuss women’s civil conditions and rights.

Later on, Douglass would include coverage of women’s rights issues in the North Star, his abolitionist newsletter. He published pages until 1860, right before the Civil War began.

Keynote Address at the Emancipation Memorial Unveiling in 1876

Frederick Douglass was a speaker at the Emancipation Memorial’s dedication in Lincoln Park, Washington, D.C., in 1876. This event unveiled a statue as a memorial of Lincoln’s assassination.

The unveiling gathered a crowd of 25,000 people, many of whom were Black. Douglass expressed his displeasure at the monument depicting Abraham Lincoln towering over a freed slave with broken chains at his feet. He reminded his audience that despite Lincoln’s intentions, his interests remained true to white men.

How Frederick Douglass’s Efforts Paved the Road for Equal Voting Rights Cases Around the Country

Frederick Douglass had an active role in the abolition movement. His speeches and oratorical prowess inspired many people to join the struggle for equal rights, especially the right to vote. Although it took a couple of amendments to the Emancipation Proclamation to recognize Black people’s citizenship, modern voting rights laws echo Douglass’s efforts.

Dred Scott v. Sandford in 1857

This case involved the United States Supreme Court upholding slavery in America. The court denied Black citizenship in the U.S., declaring the Missouri Compromise (which stopped slavery’s expansion) unconstitutional. Douglass wrote a speech to dispute the Supreme Court’s “devilish” decision categorizing slaves as property the way farm animals are property.

14th Amendment in 1868 (Citizenship, but Not Always Voting Rights)

This amendment granted U.S. citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in America, including formerly enslaved people. This amendment guaranteed equal protection of the laws. However, the 14th Amendment did not immediately constitute voting rights. Still, the amendment constitutionalized Douglass’s views, as voting was indeed to follow.

15th Amendment in 1870 (“Guaranteed” but Challenging to Exercise)

The 15th Amendment established that Black people were entitled to civil rights, granting them suffrage. This amendment was necessary because the previous amendment clearly excluded voting rights laws.

It is important to note that voting rights were only extended to men. No women had the right to vote until 1920, when the 19th Amendment was finally ratified, granting voting rights to all women.

Enforcement Act in 1871 (Making It a Crime to Interfere With Black Men Voting)

This law was an initiative to combat white supremacist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan. The president signed this act into law when Black people experienced attacks on their suffrage rights.

The United States v. Reese in 1876

This case weakened the 15th Amendment, arguing that it only forbade states to give preferential treatment in voting. In the Reese case, the Supreme Court stated that it did not necessarily grant individual voting rights. Thus, different states worked around the law and felt free to determine who would qualify to vote.

Smith v. Allwright in 1944

The U.S. Supreme Court declared white-only political primaries unconstitutional. This case was a landmark decision in racial desegregation.

24th Amendment in 1964

This law prohibited Congress and the states from using poll tax payments as the determining factor for the right to vote. The poll tax and other forms of taxation were large obstacles for former slaves’ voting rights and descendants.

Voting Rights Act of 1965 (Banning Discriminatory Poll Taxes)

This law amplified the 24th Amendment’s provision of banning discriminatory poll taxes that stood in the way of Black voters. Thus, this law was a landmark in prohibiting racial discrimination in voting rights laws.

Voting Rights Challenges Today

Current issues that voting rights laws face today include the many ways different states attempt to suppress minority voters, especially those of Native American descent, immigrants and descendants of immigrants, and underprivileged communities.

Let us allow the past struggles in fighting for equal voting rights to support today’s discriminatory obstacles against voting. If you believe you are experiencing voter rights suppression, contact a voting rights lawyer today.