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Democracy Matters - Episode 79: The 26th Amendment at 50: Racial Justice and Youth Political Power


 
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SUMMARY: For Constitution Day 2021 and to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the 26th Amendment to the United States Constitution, we talk with Carolyn Quilloin Coleman who started her activism work as a teenager protesting segregation in Savannah, Georgia. In April 1969, she organized the NAACP-sponsored Youth Mobilization conference in Washington, D.C. The gathering brought together 2,000 young people from 33 states to lobby Congress in support of youth voting rights.


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 this episode, we talk with Carolyn Quilloin Coleman who started her activism work as a teenager protesting segregation in Savannah, Georgia. In April 1969, she organized the NAACP-sponsored Youth Mobilization conference in Washington, D.C. the gathering 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.

Carolyn Quilloin Coleman continues to serve on the Guilford County Board of Commissioners and on the national board of directors of the NAACP. She is a native of Savannah, Georgia, where she graduated from Savannah State College. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree with a major in history and a minor in economics and sociology. She has done further study at Memphis Theological Seminary and holds the Masters of Science degree in adult education from North Carolina A & T State University. Previous to her work as a Commissioner, she served as the Special Assistant to North Carolina Governor James B. Hunt for eight years. In this position, she advised the Governor on policy, personnel, legislation and concerns pertinent to the minority community.

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Published: Monday, September 6, 2021

Last Updated: Tuesday, September 7, 2021

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