By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
January 24, 2022
“Slavery is not abolished until the black man has the right to vote.”
—Frederick Douglass (1865).
A few days ago, in the United States Senate, the Democrats fought vigorously against the suppression of the rights of black people to vote that were passed by 19 Republican-controlled states of the union.
In spite of their best efforts, the Democrats failed to achieve their objective, which led Carl Hulse to opine: “It was a disheartening moment for congressional Democrats, who put the full force of their majority behind the issue, despite the long odds of success” (Boston Globe, January 26).
This battle to prevent blacks from exercising their franchise goes back to the founding of the US. Although a small number of free blacks were among the voting citizens when the US constitution was ratified in 1789, blacks on the whole were not granted the right to vote until they had fought gallantly with the Union army against the Confederate forces during the Civil War.
After the Civil War, African Americans at a Black National Convention in Syracuse in 1864 passed the following resolution: “We want the elective franchise in all the states now in the Union, and the same in all such states as might come into the Union.” However, in spite of their bravery, most Southern states enacted the Black Codes in 1865-66 which prevent the formerly enslaved from voting. WEB Du Bois noted: “The struggle after the Civil War for black people was the struggle to grant equal suffrage to blacks and to abolish the black codes.” As a result of this war, black men (not black women) were given the right to vote in 1870.
Before the senate debate about the suppression of the black votes in states where Republicans are in control, President Joe Biden asked senators to consider the following proposition: “How do you want to be remembered? Do you want to be on the side of Dr King or George Wallace? Do you want to be on the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor? Do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis?”
Davis was the president of the Confederacy that fought to keep black people enslaved. Bull Connor was the Birmingham chief of police whose cops almost beat Lewis to death. Wallace, governor of Alabama, in his Inaugural Address in 1963, declared: “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” This is the racial history black people are fighting against.
After Donald Trump lost the 2020 election that he claimed he won, “legislators in 49 states drafted more than 440 restrictive voting bills, according to the Brennan Centre. Thirty-four became law. Four states all passed sweeping, omnibus election bills with long lists of new and more stringent restrictions. Seven states imposed harsher voted ID voter requirements, while some seven states shrunk the time frame for requesting mail ballots. Four states limited the use of mail ballot drop boxes, and seven states made it easier for citizens to be purged from the voter rolls.” (NBC News, December 21, 2021)
Apart from these restrictions, election supervision has become more polarised. Some states moved from having non-partisan officials conduct elections to having the legislators supervise them. Imagine, a Trump-elected official standing up to a request “to find” him a few more votes as the Republican secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, did when Trump asked him to find him 11,780 votes to ensure his election.
This politicisation of the electoral process took on more steam as 2021 progressed. Trump and his people—primarily white—were determined they would never lose another election even if it meant suppressing all of the black votes, no matter where one found them. Bishop Reginald Jackson, AME presiding prelate in Georgia, wrote: “Extremist Trump loyalists, desperate to keep their power, began an efficient and well-funded campaign to minimise black and brown voters, first in Georgia, and then, in a domino effect, in state legislatures across the country.” (January 16)
Herein lies the danger. Alexander Hamilton, as Jamelle Bouie pointed out, wrote: “If the State legislatures were to be invested with an exclusive power of regulating these elections, every period of making them would be a delegate crisis in the national situation, which might issue in dissolution of the nation.” (New York Times, January 21)
Trump’s transgressions have not gone unnoticed. Criminal investigations have been started into his “possible criminal disruptions”. On Thursday, Fani Willis, district attorney in Fulton County, requested a judge to convene a special grand jury to consider criminal investigation into Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election results in Georgia.
The Brookings Institution concluded that Trump’s post-election conduct in Georgia had put him “at substantial risk of possible state charges, including racketeering, election fraud solicitation, intentional interference with performance of election duties and conspiracy to commit election fraud.” (New York Times, January 20)
The struggle for unfettered voting rights for black people continues in spite of the fact that some senators do not see black people as equal citizens. Mitch McConnell, the senate minority leader, answering a question about voting access and concerns from non-white voters, remarked: “Well, the concern is misplaced, because if you look at the statistics, African American voters are voting in just as high a percentage as Americans.” It suggested that being black makes you less American.
California Rep Judy Chu wrote on Twitter: “Please take 19 seconds to watch this video to understand why we have to fight for voting rights for ALL Americans.”
The sustained attack against black people presents a grave peril to American democracy. It also supports Derrick Bell’s position that America will remain a racist nation. We need to pay attention to these concerns.