Mayor Harold Washington votes in the 1st Congressional primary in 1983. Credit: Sun-Times Negative Collection
Mayor Harold Washington votes in the 1st Congressional primary in 1983.
Mayor Harold Washington votes in the 1st Congressional primary in 1983.Credit: Sun-Times Negative Collection

Editor’s note: The
Reader is teaming up with Blvck Vrchives founder Renata Cherlise to create multimedia narratives of black life in Chicago. Cherlise’s site offers “a curated visual journey through history.”

The black right to vote was a long time in coming.

On February 3, 1870, the 15th Amendment was ratified, granting black men with the right to vote. (Previous Constitutional amendments abolished slavery and granted citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States,” including former freed slaves.) Black women waited another 51 years to vote, winning the right when America ratified the 19th Amendment in 1920. But even these Constitutional measures weren’t enough to guarantee black Americans the right to vote.

For the next 40-plus years, blacks faced literacy tests, poll taxes, voter suppression, and other discriminatory practices, especially in southern states. A wave of Civil Rights-era activism called attention to these practices, including the March 7, 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, led by members from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). On this day, commonly referred to as “Bloody Sunday,” Alabama State Troopers ordered demonstrators to disperse and responded with tear gas and clubs when they wouldn’t.

Three weeks later, approximately 25,000 others marched on the Alabama state capitol in protest. Ultimately President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law, banning literacy tests and other forms of voter suppression, and finally granting black voters with the ability to elect representatives of their choosing into public office.

Over the next several decades, black Americans continued to struggle with poor representation from white elected officials, even after voter suppression laws were prohibited. Additionally, in cities like Chicago, it would take several more decades to elect Harold Washington, the city’s first black mayor, into office.

But the event was momentous. In 1983, for the first time in history, Chicago’s “new black voters outnumbered new white voters” during the mayoral general election through voter mobilization.

As Americans vote in this year’s presidential election, we look back at the visual history of black voters in Chicago, alongside footage from the 1965 civil rights demonstrations in Selma and the 1964 demonstrations in St. Augustine, Florida. This dive into history offers space to reflect on the power of voter mobilization and the strength of the black vote.

Photo credits:  Sun-Times Print Collection, Sun-Times Negative Collection, Gene Pesek, AP, Robert A. Davis, Bob Black, Graff, Bob Ringhar 

Film footage: Florida Memory Archives