by Larry Smith
Despite significant coverage in the American media, the 50th anniversary of the march in Selma, Alabama that led to passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act went almost unnoticed in the Bahamas.
And it’s a safe bet that most Bahamians who didn’t actually live through those tumultuous years are clueless about what happened in their own country at the same time. Hint—the two experiences are closely related.
The substance of these experiences was the suppression of democracy - denying citizens of African descent their right to vote. In the US these citizens were a minority. In the Bahamas, they were the majority. The ancestors of both groups were enslaved for centuries.
The 15th Amendment to the US constitution, ratified in 1870, after the civil war, prohibited states from denying the right to vote based on “race, color or previous condition of servitude.” This superseded laws that had directly prohibited black voting.
"As a result, in the former Confederate States...hundreds of thousands of recently-freed slaves registered to vote,” according to the US Justice Department website. "The extension of the franchise was strongly resisted...in a climate in which violence could be used to depress black voter turnout.”
Southern states passed laws that included poll taxes, literacy tests, vouchers of "good character," and disqualification for "crimes of moral turpitude." These were designed to exclude black citizens by allowing white officials to apply them selectively.
By 1910 nearly all black citizens in the former Confederate states were disenfranchised. The long struggle to restore those rights was one of the major focuses of the US civil rights movement, which was led by Rev Martin Luther King jr.