top of page
  • Alex Horn

The Struggle for Democracy in the United States

On Wednesday, I had the honor of going to Montgomery, Alabama and marching ten miles of the Selma-Montgomery march, led by Black Voters Matter. Its purpose was to commemorate the anniversary of Bloody Sunday and the original Selma-Montgomery march, but also to continue the struggle against voter suppression and for democracy. We are often taught that the Revolutionary War brought democracy to the colonies, and that the Constitution enshrined it, but this was never the case. The United States was never meant to be a democracy, and it still isn’t one–so we must continue the struggle to create a truly democratic society.

Eleven years after the colonies declared independence from Britain, the Constitution was ratified. However, it is not a true bearer of democracy. Until the early 20th century, senators were appointed by state legislatures, and the Senate today still over-represents rural states. The electoral college was also originally intended to be unpledged, with electors able to appoint the President regardless of constituent votes. Even for offices people could directly vote for, only a small fraction could vote, as most states restricted voting to just white, land-owning men.

The framers argued that this form of government protects minorities against a “tyrannical majority.” While protecting marginalized people from oppression is a necessity for democracy, this is not what the framers intended. In Federalist No. 10, James Madison wrote on the danger of majority rule, and wrote that the Constitution would protect against it. As a wealthy, white enslaver, was Madison really concerned with protecting the rights of marginalized communities? Madison wrote that “the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property.” He benefited from this unequal distribution, and argued that this inequality “grows out of necessity in civilized nations.” Like Madison, all of the other framers were wealthy white men, and weren't concerned with protecting the rights of marginalized communities, but of the minority of people who were wealthy enslavers. The framers wanted to protect their own right to own land and to enslave people, and many scholars argue that one of the reasons why the colonists revolted was to protect slavery. As W.E.B. Du Bois said, “A system cannot fail those it was never intended to protect,” and the Constitution was written to protect wealthy white enslavers.

We can still, however, build a democracy, and it is our duty. Throughout history, those who are most disenfranchised have been most active in the work of envisioning and building democracy. As journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones argued in The 1619 Project, “More than any other group in this country’s history, [Black Americans] have served, generation after generation, in an overlooked but vital role: it is we who have been the perfectors of this democracy.” After the civil war, newly-freed Black people began building the work democracy, and with the 15th Amendment guaranteeing the right to vote to all Black men, they immediately began voting and running for office. It was not uncommon for there to be upwards of 90% voter turnout of Black men in the South, and the first South Carolina House of Representatives after the Civil War was majority Black. These Black elected officials also founded democratic institutions beyond electoral politics, banning discrimination in public spaces, and implementing the first public schools in the South. However, this era of Reconstruction ended prematurely with the presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes. White supremacists took the political power in the South and prohibited Black people from participating in electoral politics.

In the 1960s, after nearly a century of Jim Crow-rule, a mass movement of people again struggled for democracy–and this was also led by Black people. In Alabama alone, thousands of people marched for voting rights, and dozens were assaulted, beaten, or murdered for it. Many Black people were also fired from their jobs or evicted from their homes just for registering to vote, and “Tent City” was erected in Lowndes County for those who were evicted or fired, lasting for over two years. The movement for voting rights succeeded with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but we still have work to do.

Today, voting rights are under attack, and we still haven’t created the democracy we know is possible. In 2013, the Shelby v. Holder decision overturned a huge part of the Voting Rights Act, and this has allowed many jurisdictions to again enact anti-democratic laws. Just in 2021, 440 bills were introduced to restrict voting, and 34 passed. In February, the Merrill v. Milligan court case allowed Alabama to gerrymander most of Alabama’s Black population into just one congressional district, stripping another portion of the Voting Rights Act. Several bills on the federal level have been proposed to protect and expand voting rights, including the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, though they failed due to the filibuster and a fraction of senators representing a minority of people. We must continue this struggle for democracy and against white supremacy. In the words of Assata Shakur, and as we chanted during the march, “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love and support one another. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”


bottom of page