Black Political Activism and the Fight for Voting Rights in Missouri

Black Political Activism and the Fight for Voting Rights in Missouri

If every person who declined to vote in the 2016 Presidential Election wore a “Did Not Vote” sticker, the total would number more than 100 million people, or four out of every ten Americans.[1] As we approach another election in 2020, a moment should be taken to remember the 15th Amendment, which banned racial discrimination at the polls and was ratified 150 years ago during Ulysses S. Grant’s presidency. For Black Missourians who had fought for voting rights for several years without success, the 15th Amendment signaled a possible pathway towards better political representation and racial equality in that state.

When Congress placed ten former Confederate states under military rule in 1867, it required that these states guarantee black male voting rights as a condition for readmission into the Union. This would not be the case in Missouri, a former slave state that was badly divided but had ultimately remained loyal to the Union during the Civil War. Instead, Missouri’s political leaders managed their own affairs without federal interference. As such, most delegates at the convention opposed black voting rights when a state constitutional convention was held shortly after the end of the war. Even convention leader Charles Drake and other like-minded Radical Republicans feared that such a provision would lead to the constitution’s rejection by voters. When voters ratified the new state constitution with a narrow 1,800 margin in July 1865, former Confederates and African Americans in Missouri were both excluded from the ballot box.[2]

In response to these developments, the Missouri Equal Rights League was formed in the fall of 1865. Dedicating themselves to the cause of black voting rights and equality before the law, the organization was composed of several noteworthy Black Missourians. The Reverend Moses Dickson was an abolitionist who aided enslaved runaways on the Underground Railroad and was a co-founder of Lincoln University, the first black college in the state. Blanche K. Bruce established a school for black children in Hannibal during the Civil War and later went on to become the first African American to serve a full term in the U.S. Senate for the state of Mississippi. James Milton Turner served as Assistant Superintendent of Schools under Governor Thomas Fletcher and worked to establish Black schools throughout Missouri. President Grant later appointed him to become the nation’s Minister to Liberia in 1871. These men were joined by prominent national leaders who agreed to assist the Missouri Equal Rights League. John Mercer Langston was an established African American lawyer who had attended the Oberlin Institute with Turner before the Civil War, and George Downing was a wealthy restaurateur with establishments in New York, Rhode Island, and Washington, D.C.[3]

James Milton Turner in his later years, circa 1910s.

The group held its first public meeting in St. Louis on October 3, 1865. Several speakers cited the service of black soldiers who had served in United States Colored Troops (USCT) regiments during the Civil War. Four such regiments had been organized in St. Louis at Benton Barracks during the conflict, including the 62nd USCT regiment, which contributed funds to the establishment of Lincoln University. In a statement published by the Missouri Democrat, the Missouri Equal Rights League argued that the right to vote “rightfully and logically belong[s] to us as freedmen, and as those [of us] who have never deserted the flag of our common country in the hour of its darkest peril.” Furthermore, they asserted that they would only support the re-enfranchisement of former Confederates until they agreed to guarantee a “universal right to the ballot box.”[4]

The October meeting was representative of a common strategy used by Black political leaders throughout the United States. Starting around the 1830s in the North but expanding to the rest of the country during Reconstruction, African Americans held public conventions—often referred to as “Colored Conventions”—to publicly declare their support for voting rights, education, labor rights, and equal treatment before the law. By hosting a large public meeting in the state’s largest city, Missouri’s Black political leadership tapped into a tradition of creating what the Colored Conventions Project describes as “opportunities for free-born and formerly enslaved African Americans to organize and strategize for racial justice.”[5]

Shortly after the meeting, leaders in the Missouri Equal Rights League wrote and distributed the group’s manifesto, Address to the Friends of Equal Rights. The Address invoked the language of the Declaration of Independence and highlighted the notion that fair legislation in a republic came from the “consent of the governed.” Preventing black Missourians from exercising the right to vote was the same as being taxed without representation and having no say in the creation of laws. The Address again reinforced the sacrifice of black troops during the Civil War, who “bared their breasts to the remorseless storm of treason, and by hundreds went down to death in the conflict.” The ultimate reward for military service, the Address argued, was the right to vote.  “We ask only that privilege which is now given to the very poorest and meanest of white men who come to the ballot box.”[6]

In the short term, the Missouri Equal Rights League’s efforts failed. Black voting rights never gained widespread acceptance in Missouri and the State Legislature never passed legislation to that effect. Many white Missourians supported the views of Congressman Frank Blair, who represented much of St. Louis and actively campaigned against Black voting rights. When he was nominated as the Democrat Party’s Vice-Presidential candidate in 1868, Blair argued that electing Grant as president would lead to a race war and that Black men would sexually “subject white women to their unbridled lust.” Nevertheless the 15th Amendment’s ratification in 1870 made black men around the country eligible voters by stating that citizens could not be prevented from voting on account of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” President Grant declared shortly after its ratification that the “fifteenth amendment to the Constitution completes the greatest civil change and constitutes the most important event that has occurred since the nation came into life.”[7]

The success of the 15th Amendment was fleeting, however. Because the Amendment did not guarantee a universal right to vote, “race-neutral” loopholes such as poll taxes and literacy tests were exploited by Southern state governments—including Missouri—that were anxious to keep blacks from voting. The spirit of equality during the Reconstruction Era was replaced with the spirit of Jim Crow. And women were still prevented from exercising the right to vote (whether the Missouri Equal Rights League supported women’s suffrage was left unstated). Even with the ratification of the 19thAmendment in 1920, which prevents voter discrimination on the basis of sex, Black women under the force of the Jim Crow South would not gain access to the ballot until the 1960s.

As we assess political candidates for the 2020 presidential election, some potential voters will ultimately choose not to vote. Indeed, one could argue that non-voting is a form of protest in its own way. But the ability to choose not to vote is a rare privilege. Let us remember that throughout most of our country’s history, a majority of U.S. citizens never possessed a right to have their voices heard at the ballot box.

[1] “2016 November General Election Turnout Rates,” United States Election Project, September 5, 2018, accessed September 10, 2020. http://www.electproject.org/2016g

[2] William E. Parrish, A History of Missouri, Volume III: 1860 to 1875 [2nd Edition] Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1990, 120-124, 143-150; the 1865 Constitution is available online at Missouri Digital Heritage, “Missouri Constitution, 1865,” Missouri Secretary of State, Missouri Digital Heritage, 2020, accessed September 20, 2020. http://cdm16795.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p16795coll1/id/114/rec/3.

[3] William P. O’Brien, “Moses Dickson (1824-1901),” BlackPast, January 18, 2007, accessed September 12, 2020. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/dickson-moses-1824-1901/; “Blanche Kelso Bruce,” United States House of Representatives, 2020, accessed September 12, 2020. https://history.house.gov/People/Detail/10029; Gary R. Kremer, James Milton Turner and the Promise of America: The Public Life of a Post-Civil War Black Leader (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1991).

[4] Missouri Democrat, October 16, 1865; Kremer, 18-24.

[5] See “Colored Conventions Project,” University of Delaware, accessed September 20, 2020. https://coloredconventions.org/; “Colored Conventions: National Affiliate Library Research Guides, Penn State University Libraries, accessed September 20, 2020. https://guides.libraries.psu.edu/ColoredConventions.

[6] Missouri Democrat, January 15, 1867.

[7] Nick Sacco, “A Free Country for White Men: Frank Blair and His Statue in St. Louis,” Muster (Journal of the Civil War Era), July 28, 2017, accessed September 14, 2020. https://www.journalofthecivilwarera.org/2017/07/free-country-white-men-legacy-frank-blair-jr-statue-st-louis/; “Ulysses S. Grant & the 15th Amendment,” National Park Service, 2020, accessed September 14, 2020. https://www.nps.gov/articles/ulysses-s-grant-the-15th-amendment.htm

Nick Sacco

NICK SACCO is a public historian and writer based in St. Louis, Missouri. He holds a master’s degree in History with a concentration in Public History from IUPUI (2014). In the past he has worked for the National Council on Public History, the Indiana State House, the Missouri History Museum Library and Research Center, and as a teaching assistant in both middle and high school settings. Nick recently had a journal article about Ulysses S. Grant’s relationship with slavery published in the September 2019 issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era. He has written several other journal articles, digital essays, and book reviews for a range of publications, including the Indiana Magazine of History, The Confluence, The Civil War Monitor, Emerging Civil War, History@Work, AASLH, and Society for U.S. Intellectual History. He also blogs regularly about history at his personal website, Exploring the Past. You can contact Nick at PastExplore@gmail.com.

3 Replies to “Black Political Activism and the Fight for Voting Rights in Missouri”

  1. A great read! And the struggle continues as we speak for many who are being disenfranchised. The right to the ballot box has sadly been taken too lightly by
    those who fail to vote, and fail to stand up for those who cannot.

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