The U.S. Senate – Bastion of Reaction

Only mass struggle won voting rights
Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965. Only mass struggle won voting rights. | Photo: AP

By David Sole

On January 19 the U.S. Senate voted 48 -52 against changing its rules. This doomed efforts to protect voting rights in the country. Two Democrats joined 50 Republicans to keep voting rights bills from being voted on. This should not be a surprise considering that the U.S. Senate is, and was designed to be, a stronghold of racism and reaction.

The Constitution of 1789 created two legislative houses of Congress. The House of Representatives was the more popularly elected body, apportioned by population. The Senate gave each state two Senators, regardless of population.

Voting in those days was limited to white men with property. So the House of Representatives itself wasn’t very representative. African Americans were denied the right to vote until ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870. Worse yet, enslaved Africans were counted as “3/5 of a person” and that additional count was given to the white slave masters for purposes of elections. Property restrictions eventually were eliminated for white males to be able to vote. Women were excluded from voting in the United States until the passage of the 19th amendment to the Constitution in 1920. Native peoples were excluded until the Snyder Act of 1924, but still weren’t allowed to vote in all states until 1962.

After the Civil War the franchise was given to African Americans. This right was then taken away in many states, especially in the South, from around 1876 by “Jim Crow” laws. The Civil Rights movement challenged these voting restrictions and succeeded in winning the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Now, 57 years later, there is a widespread movement at the state level to again eliminate or minimize voting rights aimed mainly at African Americans.

What about the Senate? Each state had two Senators. This means that every state had the same strength in the Senate no matter its population. In the 1790 census Massachusetts had about 379,000 population and New York 340,000 (of which 21,000 were enslaved). The southern plantation states of Georgia (54,000 free and 29,000 enslaved) and South Carolina (142,000 free and 107,000 enslaved), with much lower population, had equal say in the most important legislative body in the country.

A look at the number of Senators from the North and the South, shows that the southern planters controlled a majority (or equal number) in the U.S. Senate from 1790 (16 to 10) to 1846 ( 30 to 28). In the following 14 years the balance swung against the South in terms of control of the Senate. The expanding power and population of the capitalist controlled northern states led directly to the secession of southern states and the bloody Civil War (1861-1865).

Just to ensure that Senators were subservient to the rich and powerful in each state, U.S. Senators were chosen by state legislators, not by direct election, from 1789 to 1913. The 17th Amendment, which was passed in 1913 giving direct election of Senators, is a futile attempt to make the system “more democratic.”  Today both the House and Senate in Washington, D. C. are known as the “Millionaires Club” because of their many wealthy members.

Without tracing voting rights enacted into law but suppressed for decades, it is important to recognize that the population inequalities of the Senate remain. The working class and oppressed nationalities are concentrated in large urban areas. States with large rural areas, mainly white, and much lower populations wield power in the Senate far beyond their numbers.

Just take New York State with a 2020 population around 20 million. It has 2 Senate seats but has more people than 15 states that rank lowest in population. Those 15 states control 30 Senators. California has to make due with 2 Senators representing a population of about 40 million people.

The rule change that would have allowed two voting rights bills to come to a vote on the Senate floor this month concerns the “filibuster.” The filibuster is not in the Constitution. Rather it is a rule of that body. Parliamentary procedure generally allows debate over an issue to continue until a large majority of the members vote to close debate. In the U.S. Senate that number is three fifths or 60 out of 100 Senators.

A minority of Senators can hold up voting on an issue they oppose, often indefinitely, just by talking endlessly. That is called the “talking filibuster.” This tactic was most notably used by Southern racist Senators during the Civil Rights era to kill civil rights legislation, But now if 41 Senators even threaten a filibuster, the Senate chairperson will refuse to consider the bill.

The Senate has repeatedly changed their rules to limit the filibuster and revert to simple majorities to pass legislation and vote on nominees to various positions in government. Budgets, Supreme Court nominees, trade agreements, arms sales and military base closings are among 116 exceptions to the filibuster created from 1969 to 2014, This did not happen on January 19 for the proposed voting rights bills. Fifty Republicans, joined by two Democrats decided that maintaining the filibuster was more important than protecting the voting rights of millions of people.

How can we ever pass even modestly progressive legislation in Congress? The Voting Rights Act, which became law in 1965, gives us a clue.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was not a legislative victory. It was not handed to the nation by generous and progressive politicians. Southern racists were strong in the 1960s and the filibuster rule was very much alive. The bill was the result of a struggle by the masses of the population that organized, rallied, marched and often died for the goal of equal rights.

The lynching of 14 year old African American Emmet Till in Mississippi occurred on August 28, 1955. On December 1, 1955 Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama for refusing to give up her seat to a white man in a city bus. This sparked the 13 month Montgomery Bus Boycott.

The next ten years saw the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and young activists from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) work bravely and tirelessly to challenge laws and rules that effectively barred African Americans from voting across the southern states. The sacrifices by these activists are too numerous to chronicle here.

But by 1964 the entire nation, and the whole world, had their attention on the heroic freedom fighters and the murderous racist repression that they faced. In 1965 two SNCC organizers along with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. put forward a call for a march from Selma, Alabama to the state capitol in Montgomery for voting rights. The original proposal came from two SNCC veterans, Diane Nash and James Bevel

Organizing went on for several months prior to the march. On February 26 Jimmie Lee Jackson, a church deacon and protester, died after being shot days earlier by a state trooper at a peaceful demonstration.

On March 7, 1965 civil rights marchers peacefully began. They started to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River but were met with a massive and brutal police attack on the bridge. TV cameras rolled as the demonstrators were beaten senseless and driven back. This became known as “Bloody Sunday.”

A second march began March 9 but turned back at the bridge when leaders decided to wait for support from a Federal court. That night Unitarian minister James Reeb was murdered in Selma.

The march finally stepped off March 21, only after 1900 Alabama National Guard troops under Federal command were sent in. On March 25 over 25,000 protesters gathered at the State Capitol. That same night Detroiter Viola Liuzzo was murdered by the KKK while driving some protesters back to Selma from Montgomery.

That decade of struggle from 1955 to 1965 exposed the horrors of racism and repression. More importantly it galvanized many millions of activists and supporters to go into the streets. Churches, labor unions and many other organizations in all communities were coming together. In 1964 and 1965 huge uprisings broke out in  northern cities like New York and Los Angeles against racism, poverty and police terror.

It was precisely the massive protest movement and the very real threat of civil war that terrified the capitalist ruling class, who are the real power behind the politicians in Washington. To try to dampen the fires of revolution the Voting Rights Act became the law of the land just 5 months after Bloody Sunday. On August 6, 1965 President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the bill.

This is the lesson for today, when reactionary, racist forces seem hell-bent on turning back the clock on voting rights, women’s rights, labor rights and other progress people have won from decades of struggles. It won’t be politicians who give us our rights. It must be the people themselves who rise and fight innumerable battles that will grow into more concentrated confrontations. If old leaders cannot prove equal to the task, as seems certain, then new, dynamic leaders will come forward.

This is the only way forward. On that path our fight for narrow legal  rights and an end to individual injustices will build our confidence for demanding and winning  real racial, economic and social justice. The entire capitalist system is already exposing itself as a complete failure and the root cause of much of our problems. Replacing it with a system that puts the needs of the many above the profits of a few, a socialist system, will become more and more reasonable and achievable when the masses are in motion.

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