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Constitution Day 2021: The 26th Amendment at 50: Racial Justice and Youth Political Power

Fifty years ago, the 26th Amendment to the United States Constitution took effect, lowering the universal voting age in the United States from 21 years to 18 years. Millions of young Americans were extended the right to vote, empowering more young people than ever before. The movement to lower America's voting age was led by young people, especially young Black civil rights activists like Philomena Queen, Carolyn Quilloin Coleman, and James Brown, Jr. of the NAACP.

In April 1969, Carolyn Quilloin Coleman who started her activism work as a teenager protesting segregation in Savannah, Georgia, organized the NAACP-sponsored Youth Mobilization conference in Washington, D.C. that brought together 2,000 young people from 33 states to lobby Congress in support of youth voting rights.

The following year, testimonies by NAACP members led to the United States Senate amending the extension of the Voting Rights Act to give the right to vote to those between 18 and 21 years of age. On March 9, 1970, in testimony before Congress, James Brown Jr. of the NAACP made an explicit connection between the voting rights of black Americans and those of young people: “The NAACP has a long and glorious history of seeking to redress grievances of the blacks, the poor, the downtrodden, and the ‘victims’ of unfair and illegal actions and deeds. The disenfranchisement of approximately 10 million young Americans deserves, warrants and demands the attention of the NAACP.”

On June 22, 1970, President Richard Nixon signed into law several amendments to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, despite his reservations that the Voting Rights Act Amendments of 1970 included an amendment that lowered the voting age to 18 for all Federal, State, and local elections. President Nixon noted, “If I were to veto, I would have to veto the entire bill–voting rights and all. If the courts hold the voting-age provisions unconstitutional, however, only that one section of the act will be affected. Because the basic provisions of this act are of great importance, therefore, I am giving it my approval and leaving the decision on the disputed provision to what I hope will be a swift resolution by the courts.”

On December 21, 1970, Supreme Court ruled in Oregon v. Mitchell that Congress could pass a change in the voting age at the federal level, but not at the state level. The Supreme Court decision placed a heavy election administration burden on the states. In March 1971, supported by President Richard Nixon, the House and Senate introduced what would become the 26th Amendment: "The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of age.” It was passed by Congress on March 23 and ratified by the required 38 states by July 1, 1971. The amendment became law in 100 days, the fastest route to ratification of any of the 27 amendments to the Constitution. Ten million new voters were enfranchised with ratification.

Listen:

Further Reading:

26th Amendment Timeline

Created by Alexandra Berens, Justice Studies, '22, JMU Civic Campus Vote Project Democracy Fellow

Further Primary Source Readings:

President Eisenhower State of the Union Transcript

President’s Commission on Voting Registration and Participation

Youth Voting Rights Coalition Members Testimonies before U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary (1970)

Oregon v. Mitchell

Symm v. United States

Detzner v. League of Women Voters of Florida

Constitution Day 2019: Celebrating Women Breaking Barriers

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2019-2020 marks the 100th anniversary since the passage and ratification of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution which articulated that, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” The 19th amendment was the result of centuries of activism and contributions from many social movements to ensure through the highest law of the land a “right through which all other rights could be secured.” But as suffragist leader Frances Harper observed in 1893, "I do not think the mere extension of the ballot a panacea for all the ills of our national life. What we need to-day is not simply more voters, but better voters." Indeed, despite the passage of the 19th amendment, women of color did not gain their right to vote until 1964, and some suffragist participation also went hand-in-hand with problematic racism.

Although there have been many advancements since the passage of the 19th amendment, there is much to be done to improve the status of women, including among other things: ending sex-based discrimination, improving maternal mortality rates for black women, ensuring equal pay for equal work, increasing protections for the LGBTQ+ community, and addressing challenges faced by veterans and those who live in poverty.

Throughout the 2019-2020 academic years, students, faculty and staff held events to celebrate Women Breaking Barriers.

Kearstin Kimm (Computer Science, JMU '20) spent her time as a Democracy Fellow at the James Madison Center for Civic Engagement researching the history of women’s rights in what we now know as the United States and the 19th amendment. Using her knowledge and technical expertise, she created the comprehensive timeline below beginning in 1619 up to present day. The timeline includes entries related to progress and challenges to the status of women, with photos and links to primary source documents. Have suggestions for additional entries?, contact Dr. Carah Ong Whaley at whaleycl@jmu.edu.


Constitution Day 2020: ‘Slaves of the State’: 13th Amendment, mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex

By Angelina Clapp (JMU ’20, Political Science), Kyel Towler (JMU ’21, Communication Studies) and Ryan Ritter (JMU ’22, History and International Affairs)

Modern day prison labor in the United States is rooted in the Thirteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and has created a system of slavery that we are more comfortable with. Because of a loophole in the Thirteenth Amendment, Black Americans have historically and presently been subjected to structural disadvantages that reinforce cheap labor from the vestiges of slavery. Incarcerated Americans have been deemed “slaves of the state” which led to the current situation for incarcerated Americans, including the loss of constitutional and voting rights, egregious underpayment for labor, prevention from unionizing, and the list goes on. The development of the prison industrial complex between government and industry, forces many state organizations and public institutions, and universities in Virginia, including JMU, utilize the “services” of prison-made goods.

Read the full paper with footnotes here.

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