Black Political Activism and the Fight for Voting Rights in Missouri

tags: racism, African American history, voting rights

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. 

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]

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]

Read entire article at Muster: Journal of the Civil War Era

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