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SALT LAKE CITY — This year's Black History Month celebrates the 15th Amendment's sesquicentennial, which granted black men the right to vote 150 years ago, and the 19th Amendment's centennial, ending women’s suffrage and granting black women the right to vote.
“It was the first time the vote expanded to really meet the initial idea that all men are created equal,” said Zebulon Miletsky, spokesman for the Association for the Study of African Americans Life and History.
Hence the theme of this year’s Black History Month: African Americans and the vote.
In 1925, American historian Carter G. Woodson created a week-long celebration of black history. Its purpose was like today's Black History Month.
Woodson wanted “to remind people of the vast contributions of African Americans to this nation ... in the hopes that it may enlighten and change peoples’ minds — even hearts,” said Miletsky.
Miletsky emphasized that includes the progress African Americans have made over the years. This year's celebration is focused on the progress of black suffragists and political figures.
“The important contribution of black suffragists occurred not only within the larger women’s movement, but within the larger black voting rights movement,” according to the Association for the Study of African Americans Life and History's website.
Before the Voting Rights Act of 1965, poll taxes, literacy tests and other restrictions made it difficult for black Americans in the South to register to vote. After President Lyndon Johnson signed the act into law, 250 million black Americans registered to become new voters. By the end of 1966, most southern states had more than 50% of African Americans registered to vote.
Today, Census records show that in 2018 51.4% of black Americans voted. An 11.08% increase from 2014.
Still, Miletsky said black Americans continue to confront cynicism and hopelessness. Instead of poll taxes and literacy tests, state ID laws and Voting Rights Act changes are creating the obstacles, which Miletsky said sometimes get in the way of people “exercising their constitutional duties and protected rights.”
Many beyond the association still consider the African American vote to be an “ongoing struggle."
Meligha Garfield, director of the Black Cultural Center at the University of Utah, considers it a challenge to get younger generations to vote. Despite the 79% increase of votes from 18- to 29-year-olds in 2018, college-age adults still represented the lowest voter turnout among African Americans.
Garfield said he's making plans to change that. Leading up to Election Day, the Black Cultural Center will guide discussions with election officers, show movies like “Selma” and hold voter registration drives to help encourage University of Utah students to vote.
“The easiest thing is to register,” Garfield said.
Miletsky said it’s also important to recognize where the right to vote came from and how many people sacrificed for progress.
“It's something that the whole country should celebrate, because it's the most American thing you could possibly do,” Miletsky said. “It's probably the best way to express how much people love this country.”