Texas Representative Senfronia Thompson (Image: CNP/Sipa US/Rod Lamkey)

Senfronia Thompson flew to Washington DC last month. She didn't travel to celebrate Independence Day or see the sights. She and her fellow Texas Democrats left their state to block radical, regressive voting restrictions, and to demand federal laws that would protect equal ballot access for all citizens.

At 82, the second-longest-serving female legislator in US history is a living witness to America's civil rights struggles. The granddaughter of sharecroppers, born in a sundown town, Thompson remembers the literacy tests and the poll taxes. She grew up under segregation, with signs saying "No Dogs, No Negros, No Mexicans". She saw the beatings, and killings, and dogs set loose on protesters. In her first term in the Texas House a white, male colleague called her his "beautiful Black mistress". When she complained, she was ostracised. She has fought bigotry her entire life.

Now Thompson and her fellow Texans are battling to preserve basic rights that were believed settled 56 years ago. But the right of all citizens to vote has never been universally accepted in America. After the Fifteenth
Amendment was ratified
after the Civil War, Black men could vote and stand for office. They embraced their new prerogatives with vigour. Twenty-two Black men were elected to Congress until the rise of Jim Crow laws stripped their access. In the first half of the 20th century, only four Black men followed them.