Why is it So Hard to Vote? Blame the Racism and Moral Cowardice of 145 Years Ago.

“Sir, it is no secret that there has not been a full vote and a fair count in Mississippi since 1875, that we have been preserving the ascendency of the White people by . . . stuffing ballot boxes, committing perjury, and here and there in the state carrying the elections by fraud and violence”  — J. B. Chrisman, 1890

Talk about saying the surreptitious part out loud! I found this quote while doing research for a forthcoming book. The speaker was a White judge appointed to the Mississippi Constitutional Convention of 1890, which stripped African Americans in the state (and thousands of poor Whites too) of access to the ballot. This was the model for all other Southern state conventions to follow in disenfranchising their own Black citizens for two generations—until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. (It was also this convention which plastered the Confederate battle emblem on the Mississippi flag 25 years after the South’s surrender). Here Chrisman acknowledges that since the end of Reconstruction fifteen years earlier, Whites had been compromising their stated morals to retain White supremacy—the openly espoused, highest value of Southern Whites through at least the 1960s. Now it was time to do by law what had been done through more underhanded means.

…where was the outcry?

We are voting in 2020 amid court challenges and arguments over mail-in ballots, the number of drop boxes in Texas counties, voter ID laws, signature-matching requirements, felon disenfranchisement, gerrymandered districts, and the role of the electoral college. How did the promise of our democracy become so compromised? There are many potential contributing factors, but the most obvious remains. We as a nation have never guaranteed the right to vote—even to those groups which have been officially granted the franchise. This can be traced directly not only to White Southern efforts to retain power for White rule, but to the cowardice of Northern states in letting them do so. “It is no secret,” began Criswell, and he was absolutely correct. When the number of Black voters plummeted in the South after these conventions, where was the outcry? What did the nation do to step in and reverse mass disenfranchisement?

When the 2020 election is over, our country must correct this historic wrong through every means: legislation, constitutional reform, popular movements, and educational campaigns to call out exactly what contemporary voter suppression is: White Supremacy rooted in the racism and brutality of slavery.