African Americans Face and Fight Obstacles to Voting

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Objectives: 

Activities will help students:

  • read the Constitutional amendments that guaranteed African Americans citizenship and the right to vote for African-American men
  • use primary sources to develop a deeper understanding of why it was so difficult vote despite the passage of the 15th Amendment
  • understand why granting voting rights to African American men threatened the status quo in the South
  • evaluate the role of the federal government in expanding the right to vote

Essential Questions: 

  • Does the Constitution guarantee our rights? 
  • What does it mean to be a first-class citizen?
  • What power is there in voting? Would you risk your life for the right to vote? 
  • What makes a public policy a national issue? When should the federal government be involved in policy-making? 
  • What role should a president play in issues that have been defined as states’ rights issues?

Framework
This lesson is the second in a series called “Expanding Voting Rights.” The overall goal of the series is for students to explore the complicated history of voting rights in this country. Two characteristics of that history stand out: first, in fits and starts, more and more Americans have gained the right to vote; and second, the federal government has played an increasing role over time in securing these rights.

Students explore why, in spite of the amendments, African-American men, especially in the South, were unable to exercise that right. Students view primary sources from the “NBC Learn” archives to get a better understanding of the shapes and toll that racism took in the 1960s. They also view a secondary source from “NBC Learn” to get a broader overview of the voting rights struggle that was an important part of the modern civil rights movement. By the end of the lesson, students will understand that while the amended Constitution secured the right to vote for African-American men, the law alone did not always make it safe or possible for them to exercise that right. They will also see that in the 1960s the federal government intervened again—this time with national legislation—to ensure that African Americans could exercise their right to vote.

Glossary

suffrage [suhf-rij]
(noun) the right to vote 

franchise [fran-chahyz]
(noun) the right to vote

disenfranchisement [dis-en-fran-chahyz-muhnt]
(noun) the act of depriving someone of the right to vote

Reconstruction Amendments [ree-kuhn-struhk-shuhn uh-mend-muhnts]
(noun) the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the United States Constitution, passed after the Civil War, that made African Americans citizens and granted the men the right to vote

Additional Resources

Activities

Part I: The Reconstruction Amendments
1. Look at the image called First Vote. With a partner, answer these questions: What is happening in the picture? How can you tell? What is the white man in the picture doing? What are the black men doing? How are they dressed? What does their attire suggest about the significance of what is happening in the picture? Why do you think there are no women in the picture? Based on the title of the picture and your prior knowledge, when do you think this picture was made? What makes you think so? To find out whether your understanding of the image and your estimate of when it was made were correct, continue with the rest of the lesson.

2. After the Civil War, Americans approved three changes to the Constitution: the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. Collectively, they have become known as the Reconstruction Amendments, because they were made into law during the post-Civil-War period called the Reconstruction. Choose one of the amendments to focus on. (Note: Make sure that some students are studying all three amendments.) Read your chosen amendment. Write a short summary (one or two sentences) of the amendment, and another sentence or two stating why it was important. If you need some information about the historical context, check The Reconstruction Amendments: Official Documents as Social History.

3. (Note: Group students by which Amendment they studied.) Stand in a corner of the room with the other students who examined the same amendment that you did. Compare your summaries and evaluations, using these questions as a guide. What did your amendment say? How did it change the Constitution? Why was it enacted? Why was it important? What rights did it guarantee to African Americans? What power, if any, did it give the government to ensure that those rights were honored?

4. Each of the three groups will create a poster or Web page (just one page, not an entire website) summarizing the content of your group’s amendment and analyzing it. Make your poster or Web page easy for viewers to grasp your key points. When you’re done, display your work and allow time for students to view all three posters/pages, so that everyone in the class knows about the content and importance of all three amendments. Ask questions of your fellow students if something isn’t clear to you or if you need help understanding it.

5. In order to make a complete poster series or website about the amendments, you will need an introduction and conclusion. Creating them will require you to synthesize what you’ve learned about the three amendments. Use these guidelines to help you do so:

  • Complete the following prompt: The 13th, 14th  and 15th Amendments were____________, ______________, and _______________.
  • In addition to the historical period in which they were enacted, what do the three amendments have in common that lead historians to group them together?
  • What situation did the three amendments seek to change?
  • In your opinion, what was/were the amendments’ major contribution(s)? What makes them important?
  • Why do you think the federal government took the action of amending the Constitution? Why weren’t the decisions left to the individual states, as most decisions about voting rights had been in the past?

6. To prepare for the next part of the lesson, think about the fact that the passage of the Reconstruction Amendments said that African American men had the right to vote, but did not ensure that they would be able to vote. In fact, in many Southern states, leaders, law-makers, law-enforcers, and other white citizens often made it impossible for black men to exercise their right to vote. Before you move on to the next section, take a few minutes to write down your thoughts about the following: Based on your previous knowledge, how did many Southern states prevent black men from voting? Then hypothesize: Why can’t passing an amendment ensure that change happens? Hold on to your answers.

Part II: Facing Obstacles to Voting
For Part II of this lesson, you’re going to fast-forward about 100 years. As you learned in Part I, the Reconstruction Amendments outlawed slavery, and granted African Americans citizenship and African-American men voting rights. But no one lived happily ever after. For the next 100 years, many Southern states made it extremely difficult—even impossible—for African Americans to exercise their Constitutional right to vote.

1. Watch the following two news clips from the “NBC Learn” archives: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Testimony at the 1964 Democratic Convention and 1965 Voter Registration Problems in Mississippi. As you watch, jot down some of the things that happened to African Americans who tried to register to vote in Mississippi in the first half of the 1960s. (Note: The sound quality of the first video is poor, so you might want to use the closed captioning.) After you’ve watched the videos, write a journal entry or create an image to express your reactions. If you need a prompt, start by answering these questions: What, if anything, surprised you in the videos? How did you feel watching them? What role did activists play in securing the ability of African Americans to vote? Students can share their responses.

2. Then make a class list based on the videos of the obstacles that African Americans faced when they tried to register to vote in Mississippi. Keep in mind that these kinds of obstacles had been in place virtually since the Reconstruction ended in the late 1870s. It was these obstacles that led to so few Southern blacks voting. (Note: From the videos, students should see that African Americans faced not only literacy and civics tests, but also violence, threats of violence and evictions.) Use textbooks and the Internet to find other methods that white Southerners used to prevent African Americans from voting. Add them to your class’s list. (Note: Encourage students to identify other strategies that limited black voter participation, including poll taxes, grandfather clauses and getting fired from jobs.)

3. Before you move on to the next section of the lesson, write an answer to this question: Since the 15th Amendment said that voting could not be restricted by race, why did so few African Americans vote by the time the civil rights movement got under way in the 1950s and 1960s?

Part III: Fighting Obstacles to Voting
The rest of the lesson addresses strategies that civil rights activists in the 1960s used to enable African Americans to exercise their right to vote.

1. What do you already know about the modern civil rights movement’s efforts to get black voters registered in the South? What do you know about how it turned out? Complete the rest of the lesson to learn more.

2. Watch Signing the Voting Rights Act, to see how the news media in 1965 reported on the passage of that law. Then watch a video that NBC put together called The Right to Vote. The video chronicles some of the important actions that led to the signing of the Act. As you watch, list the events. After you watch, take some time again to jot down answers to these questions: How did you feel when you watched the videos? What affected you most? Who can you see with Johnson when he signed the Voting Rights Act? Why do you think so few African Americans were present? What role did the federal government play in securing voting rights—and the ability to vote— for African Americans? How did the government’s role in 1965 compare to its role after the Civil War?

3. Read about some of the specific details of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by reading the section The 1965 Enactment at the U.S. Department of Justice website. Write down the important points, along with a brief statement of which obstacle to African American voting each addressed. (Note: In the next lesson, students will study the effects of the Voting Rights Act and what has become of it since 1965.)

Final Activity
This lesson has traversed 100 years. Make a time line that starts in 1865 and ends in 1965. On the time line, put the three Reconstruction Amendments, the experiences of African Americans who tried to vote after the amendments were ratified, the civil rights movement’s actions to make it possible for black Americans to vote and the Voting Rights Act. Use one color to identify the actions of the federal government and another to identify the experiences and actions of African Americans. Write an essay that answers these questions: What role have activists played in securing voting rights for African Americans? What role has the federal government played in securing those rights? Evaluate how important each group’s role was in expanding voting rights to include African Americans.

Standards
Activities and embedded assessments address the following standards from Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts.

CCSS: R.1, R.7, W.9, SL.1, SL.2