When the United States was founded, the only persons allowed to vote were free white men who owned property.
White women could not vote. White men who did not own property could not vote. Non-whites were denied the right to vote.
Blacks did not gain the right to vote until 1870 with the ratification of the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by the Reconstruction Congress five years after the Civil War ended.
After Reconstruction ended in 1876, widespread and systematic efforts to disenfranchise, suppress and intimidate new black voters occurred.
Reinhold Niebuhr wrote: “In the South, the Negro was practically disenfranchised. In Louisiana, the number of Negroes registered in 1896 was 130,344. In 1900, after the State rewrote the suffrage provisions of its constitution, only 5,330 Negroes were able to be on the registration books. It was only in the Civil [Voting] Rights Act of 1965 that provision was made for federal surveillance of voter registration, which eliminated the essential impotence of our Negro minority.”
Women were not granted the right to vote until after ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920.
I recently spent much of a day visiting Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
I revisited the gravesite of President John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1963. His brother, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, was murdered in 1968. Their brother, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, devoted his political career to opening doors of opportunity for people.
I visited the gravesite of Justice Thurgood Marshall, who fought in the courts to break social, political and other barriers. I spent a few moments at each gravesite remembering, meditating and giving thanks for what these men did to open doors for people who had been shut out, mistreated and neglected by our political process.
My most difficult search – because his gravesite is strangely not listed on any literature or promotional material associated with Arlington National Cemetery – ended when I located and spent a few minutes at the gravesite of Medgar Wiley Evers.
Evers had been registering black voters as field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Mississippi when he was murdered in June 1963 by a racist gunman.
Medgar Evers, Justice Marshall, President Kennedy, Sens. Robert and Edward Kennedy, and other brave men and women lived and died trying to expand voting rights.
Congressman John Lewis and other advocates of voting rights were beaten in full view of TV cameras on “Bloody Sunday,” March 7, 1965, as they tried to march across the Edmund G. Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala.
My parents paid poll taxes because people didn’t want them to vote. I keep Mom’s 1963 poll tax receipt framed in my court chambers as a constant reminder of that time and its injustice.
When so many have sacrificed so much to give us the power to vote, it is morally wrong to not vote.
Some religious leaders are, perversely, urging their congregants to not vote. I wonder whether these leaders understand the parable Jesus taught at Matthew 25:14-30 about the servant who buried what his employer had entrusted. Jesus didn’t praise the servant. Jesus condemned him as “wicked and lazy.”
I’m not telling members of our congregation for whom to vote during this or any other election season.
But in God’s name, I denounce as wicked any efforts to suppress, intimidate and disenfranchise voters.
In God’s name, I say shame on anyone who squanders the right to vote through slothful, unlawful or simply thoughtless behavior.
And shame on any pastor or anyone else who would encourage people to bury their votes rather than cast them for the candidates of their thoughtful choices.