TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- To commemorate and celebrate the contributions to our nation made by people of African descent, American historian Carter G. Woodson established Black History Week. He realized the importance of providing a theme to focus the attention of the public. The intention was never to dictate or limit the exploration of the black experience, but to bring public attention to important developments that merit emphasis.
The first celebration occurred Feb. 12, 1926. For many years, the second week of February was set aside for this celebration to coincide with the birthdays of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln. In 1976, as part of the nation’s bicentennial, the week was expanded to a month. Since then, U.S. presidents have proclaimed February as National African American History Month.
Each year the theme changes to represent a significant event or milestone during the history of African Americans. This year’s theme is African Americans and the Vote. It recognizes the struggle for voting rights among both black men and women throughout American history. It is an ongoing struggle for people of color which continues into the 21st century.
The year 2020 is a landmark year for voting rights. It marks the 150th anniversary of the 15th Amendment which gave the right to vote to black men following the Civil War. One day after the ratification of the 15th Amendment March 13, 1870, Thomas Peterson became the first African American to cast a ballot in a U.S. election.
Despite passage of the 15th Amendment, black people in the south became disenfranchised by different political maneuvers to keep them from voting. Some states implemented literacy tests, poll taxes, grandfather clauses and other methods which were illegal. These tactics were used until the 20th century. In the mid-60s multiple voting rights campaigns were held, leading to African Americans making their voices heard.
The civil rights movement worked tirelessly to make sure anti-discrimination laws became the standard practice instead of the exception to the rule. President Lyndon Johnson signed the National Voting Rights Act of 1965. This act made discrimination against black voters illegal. Prior to the signing of the Voting Act of 1965, an estimated 23% of voting-age black people were registered to vote. In 1969, the number of voters jumped to 61%. In the southern states the numbers were more dramatic. In Mississippi, the number jumped from six to 66.5%. This increase in African American registered voters led to the election of African Americans to federal, state, local offices and eventually the president of the United States.
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