When I hear conservatives like Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, Alabama State Senator Scott Beason, and Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Representative Mike Turzai try to rationalize their bid to disenfranchise minority, elderly, and student voters, I pivot quickly to memories of the terror I witnessed in the early 1960s.
At that time, just out of high school, I joined the Southern civil rights movement’s efforts to register hundreds of thousands of black Mississippians.
Ninety-five years after the Fifteenth Amendment affirmed the right of black people to vote, I stood with 30 African Americans in the rotunda of the DeSoto County, Mississippi, courthouse. Lit cigarettes rained down on us from the second story balcony, courtesy of a dozen sheriff’s deputies and highway patrolmen. Trying to keep everyone’s spirits up, Menk Dockery strode over to take a sip from the “Whites Only” water fountain and declared, “This freedom water sure is fine.”
We chuckled at Menk’s comment. But the white registrar had the last laugh as he drew out the process of administering Mississippi’s “voter literacy test” and allowed only four blacks to even attempt to register. That morning, he failed them all on the final exam question, which required the interpretation of a section of the Mississippi State Constitution.
The local newspaper also had a hand in voter intimidation. It routinely published the names of all who took the literacy test — whites in one column, blacks in another — so that plantation owners and employers could evict black sharecroppers and fire workers who were bold enough to attempt to register.
Today, many have accepted the right wing’s line that efforts to suppress minority voting are really a response to voter fraud. Yet the proponents can’t produce any significant examples of fraud. To remember our history is to understand the real motivation.
On November 10, 1898, 1,500 armed white men, who also denied any racist motivation, rode into Wilmington, North Carolina, set the Daily Record newspaper office on fire, and forced the elected multiracial city officials to resign. These vigilantes set up a new all-white local government and “convinced” the state legislature to pass restrictive requirements including poll taxes and literacy tests.
By the end of the century, poll taxes and literacy tests had effectively rolled back the gains made during the Reconstruction period at the close of the Civil War. Blacks in much of the country would have no voice in local, state, or national elections until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Proponents of the post-Reconstruction literacy tests claimed that democracy would be threatened if voters lacked skills to read newspapers and study the issues and positions of candidates. But in practice, right through to the 1960s, Southern registrars enrolled tens of thousands of illiterate white voters while rejecting college educated blacks who were willing to risk their lives and employment to register to vote.
With this history in mind, the burden must be on those who follow in the footsteps of the Ku Klux Klan to prove the need for new voter restrictions. No one should be allowed to hide behind unsubstantiated — and often refuted — claims of fraud. The real threat to our painfully achieved democracy is from those eager to limit the rights of millions of legitimate voters.