“When It Was So Rough that You Couldn’t Make It”: Voting Rights in the Early 1960s

Today’s blog was written by Stacey Chandler, Textual Reference Archivist at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library

Part I: Mapping the Barriers

A basic law protecting the right to vote “without distinction of race, color, or previous condition of servitude” has been part of the American story for almost 150 years. The law evolved through the decades, but for much of its history, one thing remained the same: the Federal government had no real way to make the states obey it. That changed with the passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960, when new rules gave the U. S. Department of Justice (DOJ) the power to sue counties and states that denied voting rights to eligible black citizens. In 1961, the Kennedy Administration decided to test these new rules in the American South, where activists were battling what civil rights leader Aaron E. Henry called a “structureless system,” in which “only those people that the system wanted registered, got registered.”

Voter registration statistics for counties in Mississippi, January 1960. [BMPP-024-005-p0027]
Some civil rights advocates disagreed with the Administration’s heavy focus on voting rights, pointing out the array of injustices black Americans faced: black students still segregated in schools; black customers refused service in diners, hotels, and public transit; black homebuyers denied loans and housing; civil rights protestors attacked and killed. Thurgood Marshall expressed concern that “the Attorney General determined that the solution would be in the field of public elections…in the meantime, Negroes were being killed and denied their rights.” But journalist Simeon Booker bluntly explained the administration’s reasoning, remembering what “one of the Kennedys” told him: “A man has first got to become President before he can help Negroes, and Negroes can’t help a man become President, unless it is voting for him at an election.”

Meanwhile, Aaron E. Henry was working for grassroots change as Director of the Mississippi State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Henry was skeptical that the DOJ would really help black voters: “We had been studied so damn many times by agents from the federal government. …We know nothing’s going to happen because we’ve been through this ritual time and time again.” But, Henry noted, many local activists concluded “we’re not going to give you the opportunity to say that you didn’t do anything because we didn’t cooperate with you.” Soon, black communities across the South were collaborating with small teams of traveling DOJ lawyers, speaking out as witnesses and giving tips for investigation. The decision to help with these cases could often be a dangerous one, as Henry described in a 1961 letter to the President.

Aaron E. Henry describes voter discrimination in Mississippi and the harassment endured by a witness for one of the government’s cases. [JFKWHSFHW-004-034-p0011]
Back in his Washington office, DOJ Civil Rights Division Chief Burke Marshall stuck pins in a huge wall map to track every voter discrimination case his lawyers were working on. Marshall’s map, now part of the JFK Library archives, highlights not only the labor of those lawyers, but the experiences of black Southerners in the early 1960s. The handwritten notations along the bottom of the map – “1971(a)” and “1971(b)” – point to sections of voting rights law, revealing the real-life struggle behind each pin.

Green pins mark counties where lawyers filed “1971(a)” cases. In U. S. voting rights law, Section 1971(a) guaranteed all eligible citizens the right to vote, but black citizens who tried to register in these counties reported that unfair local rules kept them from the polls.  States and counties accused of 1971(a) violations used a range of tactics to disenfranchise people, from high poll taxes and literacy test standards to complicated identification procedures and limited operating hours. Purple pins mark the counties where lawyers were still investigating these rule-based violations.

Close-up image of Burke Marshall’s map of voter discrimination cases in Mississippi. [BMPP-061-015]

Red pins show where lawyers filed “1971(b) cases.” In these counties, black voters described facing threats or violence when trying to register, which Section 1971(b) specifically outlaws. In some counties, harassment was limited to economic reprisal: landlords punishing would-be voters with eviction, or shop-owners boycotting suppliers who had tried to register. Other counties saw reports of physical violence against black voters and their supporters, including arson, assault, and murder. Blue pins mark intimidation cases still under investigation.

These investigations were often far-reaching, and included not only local witnesses, but local archives, too. A new “records demand” rule from the 1960 Civil Rights Act helped lawyers look for proof of discrimination in a county’s own voting records; the yellow pins mark the counties where lawyers were researching in those records. For one case alone, lawyers studied 36,000 voter registration forms obtained through records demands. At one time, Burke Marshall estimated, there were roughly 125 pins in the map, marking ongoing trials, investigations, and records demands in over 100 Southern counties.

Schedule of DoJ lawyers traveling through Mississippi to photograph voting records and try discrimination cases. [BMPP-005-008-p0071]

Confronted with the barriers of unfair rules and the very real threat of dying for the cause, black Southerners continued trying to register, encouraging others to register, and advocating for social and legislative change. Through projects like Freedom Vote, the Voter Education Project, and local registration drives, Aaron Henry later reflected, voting rights activists worked “to stimulate people to go down and register to vote, or try, even when it was so rough that you couldn’t make it.”

Telegram from Julian Bond of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) asking for federal protection from expected violence during a voter registration drive. [JFKWHCSF-0368-006-p0045]

(Future posts in this series will explore cases of voter discrimination in more depth, highlighting events and documents from the early 1960s voting rights movement.)

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