From now until November 3, we’re going to be inundated with news, advertisements, and opinions regarding the upcoming election. Whether you are someone who just can’t get enough of the election day talk, or someone who has long-ago grown weary of it all, this does seem like a good time to reflect on and give thanks for our right to vote. We all no doubt consider the right to vote as a bedrock principle of a true democracy. But not everyone in our nation’s history was just given the right to vote. Many had to fight long and hard for that right. I recently had the honor of serving as a Judge for the Federal Bar Association’s annual essay contest offered to local high school students. Our topic this year focused on the 19th amendment which, 100 years ago, gave women the constitutional right to vote. I want to share select portions of the essay submitted by this year’s winner. I hope you find it as inspiring as I did.
On August 18, 1920, a crowd of demonstrators took to the streets of Nashville, each sporting a red or yellow flower to express their views on the controversy or 19th amendment. Away from the multitude of activists, Tennessee legislators grappled over the issue of women’s suffrage as the nation looked to end the debate. With 35 out of the necessary 36 states voting in favor of the proposed amendment, the Tennessee representatives would be the deciding factor in either granting or denying half of the American populace a long-desired right to vote. At the forefront of the issue on that fateful day was the East Tennessee representative, Harry Burn. At the tender age of 24, Burn possessed the power to liberate thousands of mothers, daughters, and wives from a system that refused to hear the voice of a female. For many proponents of the bill, Burn was a lost cause as his lapel bore the flaming red rose synonymous with the anti-suffrage movement. But, in a historical plot twist that would forever change the political landscape of America, Harry Burn raised his voice in support of the 19th amendment. And what must’ve been seen as a startling act of hypocrisy for those who opposed the legislation, the motive behind Burns’ vote was as unknown as the new terrain of women’s suffrage. The following day, Burn brought resolution to the curious minds of his peers when he announced that his mother, Mrs. Phoebe Ensminger Burn, was responsible for inspiring him to “be a good boy“ and vote in support of the 19th amendment. For in the midst of those tumultuous times so many years ago, Mrs. Burn wrote a letter to her son and advised him to use his voice to lift others up.
As we turn the corner to a new decade, Americans are urged to remember the heroic acts of suffragists as the 19th amendment celebrates its Centennial. With 2020 marking 100 years of more equitable voting opportunities, it is vital for the American people to honor the brave men and women who fought to create a nation founded upon the voices of all people, regardless of race, gender, religion, or ethnicity Elections, and the rights that they represent are defended by American servicemen and women, protected by law-enforcement, upheld by the judicial branch, and treasured by United States citizens. The right to vote is a struggle dating back to the formation of the United States with each century bringing new reforms to the institution of democracy and enfranchisement. In 2020, the voting process is the least discriminatory in American history. More voices than ever before have the power to be heard in the upcoming election this November. It is the right and the duty of all citizens to take to the ballot boxes in defense of their beliefs as homage to the heroes of history who sought to secure this right for all Americans.
It is hard to believe that my great grandmother was born into a world that did not recognize the unique perspective she had to offer but, at the time of her birth, United States still had not engaged in nationwide suffrage. Several decades before the matriarchs of my family were born, the landmark case, Minor versus Happersett, ruled that the right to vote does not apply to all people. In this 1875 case, Virginia Minor of Missouri sued a voter registrar after he denied her request to register as a lawful motor. …[T]he Supreme Court ruled that a provision in a state constitution which confines the right of voting to male citizens of the United States is no violation of the federal Constitution. … While Virginia Minors’ persistence and courage did not yield the desired result, her attempt to participate in the legal system paved the way for future activism and the eventual passage of the 19th amendment.
Although African-American men were insured the right to vote in 1870 when the 15th amendment went into effect, discrimination still plagued the black community and, unfortunately, continues to do so today. … During the years following the Civil War, many states instituted black codes and Jim Crow laws to prohibit African-Americans from taking advantage of their human rights. At the polls, literacy tests, intimidation methods, and blatant acts of cruelty were used to prevent full suffrage equality. And in the elections that could have given a voice in government to people of color, the horrific Ku Klux Klan spread terror and violence around the nation to suppress the voices of black voters.
While the voting rights act of 1965 made giant leaps in securing equitable enfranchisement for all people, there are still many steps to be taken. As Americans, we must recognize that this beautiful country was founded as a melting pot of different cultures and races. Elections serve to unite our voices, and although our political beliefs may differ, the act of voting brings us closer as a national community. And in the words of lawyer and activist, Marion Wright Edelman, “Democracy is not a spectator sport.” The history of suffrage in the United States and around the world is blemished and profoundly flawed, but it is also a story full of hope and inspiration. The anniversary of the 19th amendment marks a tremendous milestone in the fight for voting rights. Suffragettes and human rights activists such as Susan B Anthony and Sojourner Truth dedicated much of their lives to give future generations the right to vote. Voting is a solemn duty that should not be taken lightly, for it is a right that embraces the complex history of our nation and the many sacrifices that have led us to this point.
(Essay submitted by Miss Eliza Smith, a 9th grade student at Volunteer High School. Small portions edited for space limitations).