AS THE ELECTION season heats up, the question arises about how many black voters will turn out at the polls. The troubling reality is that as recently as the 1996 presidential election, black voter turnout was less than 50 percent.
In my view, any excuse offered by a black citizen not to vote is unpersuasive, considering the painful history of being denied fair access to the ballot box for decades after Congress ratified the 15th Amendment to the Constitution in 1870 expressly guaranteeing the right to vote to blacks.
Blacks voted in the South for a time during Reconstruction. But the right to vote virtually disappeared when federal control of the Southern states diminished during the years of political compromise in the late 1800s. Even as late as 1867, states like Maryland, through its constitution, tried to confer the right to vote only to "white male citizens" who met certain property and residency requirements.
Even after the right to vote was legally mandated, its exercise was frustrated by a series of sinister devices intended to stamp out the political power of black citizens, even in southern counties where they represented a majority of the population.
Among them was the literacy test, which in the hands of Southern court clerks was systematically used to discriminate against even the most well-educated blacks while permitting illiterate whites to vote.
Often those tests would require blacks to interpret obscure provisions of the Constitution while white voters who could not sign their name were found qualified without question.
The "grandfather clause" was used by many states to exempt all persons from taking the literacy test whose grandfathers had voted. Obviously, few Southern blacks had grandfathers in the early 1900s who could vote since most were slaves or free blacks. They could not be recognized as citizens.
Even the "Great Emancipator," President Abraham Lincoln, did not believe that all freed blacks should have the right to vote. At an 1864 constitutional convention, he said he would limit the privilege only to those who were "the very intelligent and especially those who fought gallantly in our ranks" during the Civil War.
In Texas, the home of Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush, the use of the "white primary" in the first half of the 20th century kept blacks from voting in state primary elections for decades. Texas was one of the last states to retain the poll tax, which prevented both poor whites and blacks from voting until it was struck down by a federal constitutional amendment in 1964.
Racial discrimination kept blacks from voting from about 1877 to 1960 in Fayette and Harwood counties in Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore's Tennessee. Those counties had populations that were more than 60 percent African-American.
In 1960, the U.S. Supreme Court, in the case of Gomillion vs. Lightfoot, permitted black citizens to sue the city of Tuskeegee, Ala., because officials had altered the shape of the city from a square to a 28-sided figure that, according to the court's opinion, had the effect of "removing all save four or five of the town's 400 Negro voters without displacing a single white voter."
The court wrote that the actions of the town officials suggested the "irresistible" conclusion that "the legislation is solely concerned with segregating white and colored voters by fencing Negro citizens out of town."
Such legal antics, along with violence by bigots, resistance by Southern politicians and the injury and death of both black and white civil rights workers attempting to secure a meaningful right to vote lead to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Thirty-five years later we witnessed some remarkable changes, such as the recent election of James Perkins Jr. as the first black mayor of Selma, Ala. -- the center of so much civil rights strife. Such an event offers encouragement that times are changing.
But if black citizens voluntarily abandon their right to vote, what was the point of the struggle to secure it? Considering the historical record, failure of an eligible black citizen to cast a ballot at any opportunity seems a great insult to the high cost paid for the precious privilege.
Jose Felipe Anderson is a law professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law.