Juneteenth and the Right to Vote

By Rebekah Caruthers

Antique photo of Henry “Pap” Caruthers
Henry “Pap” Carruthers

Juneteenth is a reminder and symbol of full citizenship for descendants of enslaved Africans, including the right to vote. My great-great-great-great grandfather, Henry “Pap” Carruthers was sold in Rutherford County, Tennessee in 1847 and brought to central Texas (the second “r” was dropped two generations later by a government official who never bothered to ask permission to do so). Once he became free, he founded the town of Forks of the Creek (present day Pelham) in 1866. It is the first Black community in Texas to have a historical marker. Early Juneteenth, or Jubilee Day, observances started in 1866 in east Texas as the freedmen celebrated their emancipation in celebrations that rivaled Independence Day festivities. Soon the annual celebration spread to central Texas and neighboring Louisiana, Arkansas, and Oklahoma.

Juneteenth has long been an opportunity to commit to voting and other civic engagement. It was common in Texas for freed Blacks to use these celebrations to become politically engaged, debate the issues of the day, and promote registering to vote. Texas officeholders and politicians would give speeches at the commemorations to encourage the freed Blacks to vote — voting was an exercise in citizenship. Juneteenth was celebrated even as violent backlash and intimidation of Blacks started to happen, including murder, lynching, and other forms of harassment.

Unfortunately, in 2021, those descendants and many more marginalized groups are again facing an attack on their citizenship and their rights. At least 43 state legislatures have introduced voter suppression bills in 2021 alone. These bills would limit mail, early in-person, and Election Day voting. Some states are going as far as making it illegal to give water to voters standing in line to vote, restricting certain voting registration activities, increasing barriers for college students to vote, and improperly purging voters from the voting rolls.

The governor of Texas is planning a special session this summer that would take up an elections bill that would restrict early voting hours, increase vote-by-mail restrictions, and tamp down local governments’ abilities to modernize elections options to make voting more convenient. Senate Bill 7 was killed in the regular session and a version of SB 7 included restrictions that targeted the tradition of Black churches encouraging its members to vote after Sunday morning service.

Many of the same flawed justifications lawmakers use to undermine voting access today, like false accusations of “voter fraud” or supposed desires to maintain, “election integrity,” were used to advance white supremacist voting restrictions during the Jim Crow era. These attacks on voting rights are fully antithetical to the spirit and principles of Juneteenth and the constitutional amendments that fully enshrined citizenship rights for Black people. As today’s attacks on voting rights seek to limit the power of an increasingly diverse electorate, they echo the backlash to Black communities’ growing power and autonomy following emancipation and Reconstruction.

Juneteenth remained a popular celebration within some Black communities across the country until the Red Summer of 1919. The Red Summer marked an uptick in Black communities being burned down around the country, predating the burning of Black Wall Street in 1921 Tulsa. Juneteenth became controversial and considered un-American and unpatriotic due to the rise of Jim Crow, xenophobia, nativism, and segregation at the end of World War I. Recognition of Juneteenth reemerged when Al Edwards, a Texas state representative, introduced legislation that made Juneteenth an official Texas state holiday in 1980. Since then, 45 other states plus the District of Columbia now observe Juneteenth.

As more and more people around the country begin to rediscover and celebrate Juneteenth, we must also continue to honor the legacy of those who celebrated before us and recommit to protecting the rights that newly freed Blacks like my great-great-great-great grandfather worked so hard for, including access to the ballot.

The right to vote is central to our democracy. The exercise of the right to vote is the most important power we have to shape our futures and is an exercise in citizenship. Our country has struggled in delivering its promise of liberty and justice for all that call America home. Juneteenth serves as a reminder to all of us to be politically engaged and make the most of our right to participate in our communities as full citizens. As we celebrate Juneteenth 2021, we must demand that our federal and state governments allow all of its citizens the unencumbered right to vote regardless of the state in which we reside.

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Rebekah Caruthers is an attorney and vice president at Fair Elections Center, a national, nonpartisan voting rights and election reform organization based in Washington, DC.

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Fair Elections Center

National nonpartisan, nonprofit voting rights organization in Washington, DC that uses litigation, public education, & advocacy to remove barriers to voting.