Kaepernick Spat in the Face of Civil Rights Giants
Updated: Jun 1, 2020
I warned anyone involved in the Black Lives Matter movement to be wary of Colin Kaepernick. I always believed his stand was more social media than social change; I didn’t realize he’d prove my point so soon. Kaepernick, the national anthem-kneeling quarterback, didn’t vote in this year’s election.
Even if he didn’t like the presidential candidates (I can empathize), he forfeited on ballot measures ranging from education to criminal sentences, firearms, healthcare, and the death penalty. Each are central to the reforms he says he wants implemented.
Instead, by failing to vote, Kaepernick spat in faces of a century of civil rights giants.
The last great Reconstruction Amendment – the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution - granted suffrage to black Americans in 1870. But it would be a century of blood-stained struggle to give effect to that right. For the next one hundred years, opponents of racial equality systematically denied African Americans the right to vote. By registration denials, voter intimidation, poll-taxes, impossible literacy tests, and any number of other subversions, those forces silenced the political voice of black America.
By 1944, black servicemen returning from World War II still found themselves shut out of the elections. While they had the right to vote in Texas’ general election, the Democratic Party barred their votes in the primaries. And because the winner of the Democratic Party primary won the general election almost universally, African Americans had been denied the vote that really counted. The same pattern repeated itself across the American South. In Smith v. Allwright, a black dentist from Houston demanded his right to vote. Argued by future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall nearly ten years before his most famous case, Brown v. Board of Education, I’ve always felt this overlooked victory more critical to civil rights than even Brown. While an educated electorate improves the efficacy of democracy, there simply is no democracy where the right to vote is withheld. The right to vote is the one indispensable feature of a democratic government, and Justice Marshall knew it.
Despite the Supreme Court’s decisions in Smith and Brown, it wasn’t until the death of Emmett Till in August 1955 that Congress began to take action. While the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Alton Sterling are each unquestionably tragic, the murder of Emmett Till was a stomach-wrenching act of pure evil. The 14-year old was beaten and grotesquely mutilated for whistling at a white girl. The resulting horror set in motion legislation that would become the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the first civil rights bill to pass Congress since 1875. Though watered down as to be nearly toothless, the act provided federal enforcement provisions for the right to vote. While any criminal contempt proceedings would still be subject to jury trial, and, consequently, dismissal by white juries, civil contempt proceedings could be processed directly by a judge. Shepherded through the U.S. Senate by then Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, the bill cracked the impenetrable Congressional dam for the first time in over 80 years.
Subsequent civil rights bills passed and by 1964 activists flooded the South to help register black voters. Three of them, including a childhood friend of my father’s, Michael “Mickey” Schwerner, paid with their lives for registering voters in Philadelphia, Mississippi. His death at the hands of the local KKK, including a sheriff’s deputy, helped spur growing protests, including the “Bloody Sunday” march in Selma, Alabama. These efforts culminated in the seminal Voting Rights Act of 1965.
This is just the surface history of blood and oppression that paved the way to Kaepernick’s right to vote. He offends their memory by failing to exercise it.
This column appeared in the print edition of The Colorado Statesman.