Calendar photo caption: Black youth in Selma, Alabama, kneel on the sidewalk to pray after law enforcement officials stopped their February 1965 march for voting rights after just three blocks. (Associated Press)
During Reconstruction, white mobs intent on restoring white supremacy after the abolition of slavery threatened, attacked, and killed black people who dared to vote. Massacres terrorized black people in the South, from Colfax, Louisiana, to Eufaula, Alabama.
Black voters and political leaders were also targeted outside the South. On election day in 1871, Octavius Catto, Isaac Chase, and Jacob Gordon were killed in Philadelphia by white mobs seeking to suppress the Black vote.
This violence continued into the 20th century as Black activists courageously advocated for racial equality. In 1940, after local NAACP leader Elbert Williams organized a voter registration drive in Brownsville, Tennessee, a group of white men that included the sheriff abducted him from his home. His beaten corpse was found in the Hatchie River days later. No one was ever prosecuted. In Mississippi, the list of murdered voting rights activists includes Rev. George Lee (1955), Medgar Evers (1963), Louis Allen (1964), and Vernon Dahmer (1966).
After the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, opponents of racial equality used the rhetoric of "voter fraud" to target activists and restrict voting rights in ways that most heavily burdened poor and nonwhite Americans. In 1985, then-Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeff Sessions prosecuted three Black voting rights activist in Perry County, Alabama, on false charges of tampering with absentee ballots.
Asked after their acquittal why he believed they had been targeted, longtime civil rights crusader Albert Turner answered simply: "I stand in the way of the white power structure."