The disenfranchisement of African Americans began after slavery was abolished in America in 1865 and the 1866 Civil Rights Act was enacted into federal law, finding its roots in the Reconstruction period of the South (1867). It was surmised by Southerners then that if blacks were counted for apportionment, but could not go to the polls, then white Democrats could dominate in the South and wield power over the Congress of the United States more so than they did before the Civil War.
The Civil Rights Act of 1866, instead of being a moderate course between black suffrage and white domination in the extreme, was in essence an enabler to the extremes. The bill conspicuously provided no provision to guarantee African Americans the right to vote.
In 1890 Mississippi convened a Constitutional convention in an effort to devise a method by which to deny African Americans the right to vote, but not to exclude illiterate whites. What emerged from that convention was the concept of a literacy test where, in practice, whites were afforded the most simple of clauses to read from the Constitution (with assistance from white poll workers, if necessary), while blacks were given “serpentine, incomprehensible clauses, which had been inserted into the document for that very purpose1; the purpose to deny African Americans access to the polls…for blacks were forced to read, write, and have the ability to fill out their application forms without assistance.
In 1895 South Carolina adopted a Constitution that not only required literacy tests, but also disqualified anyone from voting who had been convicted of a crime…crimes such as vagrancy and loitering that were the mainstay of the ‘Black Codes’ used to disproportionately convict African Americans during the aftermath of slavery.
The disenfranchisement for those convicted of a crime was taken a step further in Alabama in 1901, where Clause 187 of Article 8 stipulated that persons who registered to vote before January 1, 1903 would remain listed on the voting polls for life unless they had been convicted for the commission of a felony. The Colored Men’s Suffrage Association went after the clause in court, because the clause meant that basically every black person in the State would have to face a more severe set of requirements in order to cast a ballot in elections. To make certain blacks were singled out for exclusion from the polling places, Alabama added into its Constitution a list of felonies derived from the “Black Codes” such as vagrancy or declaration of being a tramp; which terms were frequently utilized by Southern courts to convict African Americans and subject them to plantations via convict leasing under conditions worse than chattel slavery (often to the same slave owners from whom they had obtained their emancipation in 1865 through the passage of the 13th Amendment.)
Slavery on to Jim Crow Laws, and segregation, all placed restrictions upon any claim of equal rights and opportunities by African Americans. The United States Supreme Court decisions of the 1950s, and the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, promised a new day of opportunity for blacks via education, employment, and voting without hindrance. However, the passage of civil rights bills in the 1960s ushered in a political backlash and mass incarceration of black males reminiscent of the tactics utilized in the South during Reconstruction – after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1866. After decades of incarceration of black males in America, fostering disenfranchisement, it is safe for me to say that the criminal justice system in this country maintains racial inequality and restricts the right to vote in the United States by design.2
Despite the passages of the sweeping Civil Rights Act of 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, blacks still found themselves confounded by racial barriers when attempting to exercise their right to vote. Although the 1964 Act may have encompassed voting rights, it did not eliminate the tactics most Southern States employed to keep African Americans from the polls: violence, literacy tests, and economic intimidation.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 attempted to address the oversights of 1964 by prohibiting States from utilizing tactics “to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.” It mandated the abolition of literacy tests and extended federal protection of the right to vote to those States where less fifty percent of the eligible voter populace had cast their ballots in 1964.3
Alaska, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming, were among as many as twenty states who used literacy tests to impede blacks from voting through the presidential elections in 1968, until outlawed by the Voting Rights Act of 1970. Due to the fact that African Americans were confronted by the high risk of poverty and lower achievements in education and literacy than whites, it is abundantly clear that voter restriction via literacy taking testing was aimed at this particular ethnic group.4 To this day, the Voters rights Acts of 1965 and 1970 must be resigned into law by the sitting President of the United States.
According to Becky Pettit, there are two effects as a result of mass incarceration:
First, it narrows the electorate by reducing the number of eligible voters through various felon disenfranchisement laws. Second, it contributes to the growing sample selection bias associated with the exclusion of inmates from the household-based sample surveys of the population used to generate accounts of the voting eligible population.5
Mass incarceration has clearly been utilized as a tool to disenfranchise a significant portion of the African American population today, as it was successfully used for the same purpose during the first Reconstruction period in this country—where the practice was devised under the Mississippi Plan of 1890. It has been estimated that 16 million Americans were disenfranchised during the mid 2000s as a result of felony convictions, making incarceration the principle means to roll back the gains made by blacks during the 1960s Civil Rights Era in the United States. Imprisonment of black males has proven to be the political method of choice. Just like poll taxes, literacy tests, and separate ballot boxes, mass incarceration (to include a charge of having a criminal conviction6 ) has excluded thirteen percent7 of African American men from the democratic process of casting a vote in elections.
The continual expansion of imprisonment in this country has led to a decrease in the number of eligible young black men as voters, serving as the means to nullify the Voters Rights Acts of 1965 and 1970; thereby systematically undermining the political power of the constituency that the Acts were designed to empower. The more that the political and social landscape appears on the surface to have changed for African Americans since 1964 the more the scenario has been forced by politicos to remain the same as they were prior to 1963. Dr. King’s dream of a “promised land” has been reconstructed into the nightmare of incarceration Nation.
Ralph C. Hamm, III was born on November 28, 1950 in Roxbury, Massachusetts. After a small stint in the U.S. Army between 1967-68, he was arrested while home on leave for a tour of duty in Viet Nam upon his 18th birthday, and was sentenced to life in prison for a non-capital first offense in 1969. In 1972, while imprisoned with the infamous Walpole State Prison, he helped found a Black prisoner self-help organization called B.A.N.T.U. (Black Africans Nation To Unity), and in 1973 became the first co-vice president and second president of the N.P.R.A. (National Prisoners’ Reform Association), Walpole chapter, and thereby became a major figure in the 1970s prison reform movement. He won acclaim for his 1979 play script “The Tinderbox” from the Massachusetts Council of the Arts, and later that year published his first collection of poetry “Dear Stranger/The Wayfarer”. In 1986, while interred within N.C.C.I-Gardner, he became vice chairman of the Gardner chapter of A.V.I.P (American Veterans In Prison), and was instrumental in the chapter’s receipt of a Governor’s Citation from the Honorable Michael Dukakis. During his 2009 parole eligibility hearing in Natick, Massachusetts the Chairman of the Massachusetts Parole Board (Mark Conrad) suggested on numerous occasions that he die in prison for his beliefs (convictions). A published poet, playwright, essayist, artist, musician, and author, Ralph is a magna cum laude graduate of Boston University Metropolitan College. He has certificates and diplomas in metaphysics, divinity, and paralegal. A contributor to “When the Prisoners Ran Walpole” by Jamie Bissonette, he is the author of “Manumission: The Liberated Consciousness of a Prison(er) Abolitionist” (2012), and “The Tinderbox” (2013). His pending book releases are: “Dear Stranger/The Wayfarer” second printing, and “Blackberry Juice”, both scheduled to be released in 2014. All of his books, to include “When the Prisoners Ran Walpole,” are available at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, Xlibris Corporation, and Little Red Cell Publishing.
1. Goldstone, Lawrence. Inherently Unequal: The Betrayal of Equal Rights by the Supreme Court, 1865-1903 (New York, Walker Publishing Co., 2011) I35.
2. Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. (The New Press, New York, 2010). Also see: Wacquant, Loic. “The New ‘Peculiar Institution’: On the Prison As Surrogate Ghetto.” Theoretical Criminology 4(3, 2000) 377-89. And: Western, Bruce. Punishment and Inequality in America. (New York, Russell Sage Foundation, 2006)
3. Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. Life Upon These Shores (New York, Knopf, 2011) 356-57.
4. Pettit, Becky. Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration And the Myth of Black Progress (New York, Russell Sage Foundation, 2012) 75.
5. Ibid., 77.
6. In 1999, during the Presidential election, Florida was allowed to disenfranchise hundreds of eligible black voters based upon an erroneous charge of having a criminal record.
7. Pettit, Becky. Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration And the Myth of Black Progress (New York, Russell Sage Foundation, 2012) 80.