What happened when my great grandfather tried to vote in 1901

On this date, 55 years ago, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law. 

The VRA outlawed the kind of hoops my great grandfather had to jump through in 1901 when he went to his local registrar’s office to register to vote in Alabama. He was given a literacy test that asked such questions as “What were the Kentucky Resolutions? Who is the chief justice of Alabama and the United States? What Alabamian served as Vice President?”  

Little did they know, my great grandfather was a student of Alabama and American history. 

He calmly answered the questions correctly, so the chairman of the board of registrars sent for one of the other committee members and said, “Hurry with more questions. This n***** has answered all the questions you gave us.”

Next, he was told that he needed to have three prominent white men endorse him in order to register. But all the prominent white men in the town had been instructed not to do so. Despite all this, he finally found a white man to sign an affidavit as to his character, and he was able to register.

This story is not unique. Black families across the south, including Virginia, have similar stories. So for us, efforts to erect barriers to voting are personal. And that’s why the Voting Rights Act was so critical — it responded to the demand that all Americans participate in the Democratic process. It’s one of the most transformative acts of Congress in the 20th century, bringing millions more racial and language minorities into the voting process. 

Unfortunately, in 2013, the VRA was gutted by the Supreme Court, resulting in Republican legislatures across the country adopting measures to suppress voters to hold on to power. And they won’t stop unless we stand up to them. We made significant progress in the Virginia General Assembly this year rolling back many of these restrictions. But we have more work to do. 

John Lewis reminded us time and again that we as citizens have to stay vigilant to protect the right to vote that he and so many others fought — and bled — to gain. We have to make sure we vote despite the challenges and roadblocks thrown in our way. And we need to demand stronger protections to the Voting Rights Act. 

We need Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. But we have seen that federal action isn’t enough. 

I will do everything in my power to expand voting rights and protect every single Virginian’s right to vote. That includes passing the Virginia Voting Rights Act — legislation that would prevent localities from engaging in discriminatory and damaging practices.  

So today, I hope you’ll sign this petition asking the Virginia General Assembly to pass the Virginia Voting Rights Act. 

Our democracy is only strong when everyone has the right to participate. I believe the strength of our democracy is worth fighting for.

Thanks for fighting with me,

Jennifer McClellan