By Chaitram Aklu
“The problem is whether the American people have loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough, to live up to their own constitution…” — Frederick Douglass
The 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified February 3, 1870 – 150 years ago this month. It declared that “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Just two years before in 1868, the 14th Amendment was adopted. It prevents states from denying “to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
Still, many states and local governments were able to evade the 14th and 15th Amendment declarations by enacting laws which supported racial segregation and discrimination, not only in the U.S. South but in other states as well and in effect circumvented the Amendments.
Jim Crow laws which states began to adopt from about 1890, by which time some 2,000 African American males were elected to public offices, were meant to disenfranchise both African Americans and poor whites and enforce racial prejudice. Tennessee was the first state to pass Jim Crow laws – 20 beginning in 1866, six of which required school segregation. Other Jim Crow laws that were passed included separate schools (1870) and separate seats in railroad cars (1891) in Georgia; unequal spending for education (1915) in South Carolina; no funding for schools not segregated (1965) in Louisiana. Data shows that there was great disparity in education spending for Whites and African Americans by 1910 in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Virginia.
The 15th Amendment did not give women of any race (White or black) the right to vote. That would take another 50 years of struggle to win in 1920. So 2020 is also the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, ratified August 18, 1920. It declared: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex. “Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.’’
However, it was not until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which “–prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, and religion in employment, education, and access to public facilities and public accommodations, such as restaurants and hotels –.), and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (which prohibits the use of voting qualifications or prerequisite to voting, to deny the right of any citizen to vote on account of race or color) that African Americans of both sexes were able to register to vote freely. But there are still local laws on the books that individuals and organizations have tried to use to justify racial and discriminatory practices over the years.
Many lawsuits were filed to enforce compliance of rights granted by these two Amendments. 2020 is also an important election year. These were important factors that the Black History Month organizers used to determine this year’s theme: African Americans and the Vote. Although officially recognized by the federal government since 1976, the observance dates back to 1915 when historian Carter G. Woodson and Minister Jesse E. Moorland formed an organization to promote research and promote the achievements of African Americans and people of African descent.
In July 2016, a Texas Cemetery tried to enforce a “Whites only” policy when it refused to grant the request of Dorothy Barrera, a white woman to bury the ashes of her Latino husband of 40 years.
According to press reports, a lawsuit filed by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) alleged that the cemetery operator told Barrera her request was denied because “He’s a Mexican” and was further instructed by the operator to “go up the road and bury him with the n—— and Mexicans.” One of the attorneys in the case, Marisa Bono made a statement after the court ruled that the cemetery’s “rule of discriminating based on race and national origin was void.” Bono added, “It is difficult for communities to heal from historic racial wounds when discriminatory policies such as segregation still exist.”
Georgia also had a similar law that stated: “The officer in charge shall not bury, or allow to be buried, any colored persons upon ground set apart or used for the burial of white persons.” But in April 2005 the state’s segregation-era “Jim Crow” laws were repealed. Some law makers saw the repeal as only symbolic since they opined that “none of the language designed to skirt racial integration has been enforced for decades.”
The Sheff v. O’Neill (1989) case was filed by Black, Latino, and White families from Hartford in Connecticut but was named after one student – Milo Sheff. The lawsuit alleged that there were racial, economic segregation, and inequalities between Hartford schools and suburban schools. In 1996 the State’s Superior Court ruled that the “racial, and ethnic isolation of Hartford school children violated the state’s constitutional obligation to provide a substantially equal educational opportunity and access to unsegregated educational environment.”
The court referenced several significant cases in its reasons. Plyler v. Doe (1982): “Schools are an important socializing institution, imparting those shared values through which social order and stability are maintained.” Jenkins v. Township of Morris School District (1971): “When children attend racial and ethnically isolated schools, these shared values are jeopardized: If children of different races and economic and social groups have no opportunity to know each other and to live together in school, they cannot be expected to gain the understanding and mutual respect necessary for the cohesion of our society.” And Lee v. Nyquist (1971): The elimination of racial isolation in the schools promotes the attainment of equal educational opportunity and is beneficial to all students, both black and white.”
Last month, January 2020, after 30 years of litigation a settlement agreement was reached – where a plan would be developed and be in effect until June 30, 2022 under the supervision of Hartford Superior Court Judge Marshall Berger. Under the plan more seats would be available to Hartford students in more diverse educational settings, Hartford would continue to provide the best quality education in its neighborhood schools (Since 2007 the number of minority Hartford students attending integrated school settings increased from 11 percent to between 43.9 and 49 percent), provide more support to magnet schools to attract diverse applicants, and make Regional School Choice application process more user-friendly.
The Connecticut Commissioner of Education acknowledged that “- this case started with the recognition of the need to provide diverse learning environments for students who were being educated in a segregated environment.” In the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the U.S. Supreme Court held that segregation had a profound and detrimental effect on education and segregation deprived minority children of equal protection under the law.
The ‘Sheff’ and ‘Texas cemetery’ cases are two examples that demonstrate the need for continued vigilance if constitutional rights are to worth more than words on paper, and to make sure that those rights are actually respected.