During this presidential election year, as Republicans seek to oust President Barack Obama from the White House, Americans are getting a chilling blast from the past. The right to vote, which sets the United States apart from many other nations worldwide, is under attack as it has not been in nearly 50 years.
Using the ruse of wanting to assure that everyone who votes is eligible to vote, several state legislatures controlled by Republicans are introducing strict voter identification laws requiring the show of a photo. This requirement may seem innocuous, but its purpose is to suppress voting among racial and ethnic minorities, especially Hispanics and African-Americans, and other groups who tend to vote Democratic.
It is voter suppression redux.
Having come of age during the 1960s in the South, I am familiar with the relationship between voting and disenfranchisement. I knew that the right to vote, along with actually casting a ballot, was essential to full citizenship.
In 1963, during the height of the voting rights movement, Donald Matthews and James Prothro, professors at the University of North Carolina, wrote a prescient assessment of blacks and the vote in an article for the American Political Science Review:
“The vote is widely considered the Southern Negro’s most important weapon in his struggle for full citizenship and social and economic equality. It is argued that ‘political rights pave the way for all others.’ Once Negroes in the South vote in substantial numbers, white politicians will prove responsive to the desires of the Negro community. Also, federal action on voting will be met with less resistance from the white South — and Southerners in Congress — than action involving schools, jobs, or housing.”
As a child, I did not know any blacks who voted. We could not vote. I recognized an ugly irony up close: Several of my relatives who had served as Marines and soldiers during World War II and the Korean conflict could not vote after returning to U.S. soil. They were not alone. More than 500,000 blacks fought, and many died, as members of racially segregated units during World War II. More than 600,000 served during the Korean conflict. Many died.
To keep blacks out of voting booths back then, whites used practices that included poll taxes, proof of residency, physical intimidation and even murder. The most effective tool, though, was the literacy test.
In 1964, during my first college summer break, I joined the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and traveled throughout the South with fellow students as a volunteer for the federally endorsed Voter Education Project.
Our job was to help register black voters. We had our clients memorize as much of their state constitutions as they could. We would drive the brave ones downtown where white registrars would ask constitution-related questions. Even many highly educated white citizens could not answer these questions. Of course, whites did not have to take the tests. Even after quoting entire sections of the constitutions verbatim, most blacks were deemed illiterate and were rejected.
But that was the easy part. Many blacks who tried to register were fired, evicted from their homes and forced off land they sharecropped. We students faced intimidation from mobs, public officials and law enforcement. We were arrested and beaten. Many of our offices were burned. A few times, we were shot at.
In some towns, we were warned to be outside the city limits by sundown. These places were appropriately named “sundown towns.” In one Mississippi town, a sign read: “N**GERS! Don’t Let the Sun Set on Your Behinds in This Town.” Being smart college kids, we were gone long before sunset.
My scariest experience came in Alabama, when a sheriff’s deputy and a mob raided the tables we had set under a magnolia tree on an all-black college campus. The deputy massaged his holstered pistol as he cursed and hurled epithets. Every man in the mob carried either a baseball bat or an ax handle.
The mob battered our tables and chairs and ripped up our documents. Our leader was clubbed to the ground when he protested. We put him in the bed of our pickup and drove to a black church where we hid until the next morning.
Our next stop was Selma.
I was a changed young man after returning to college that fall. I had learned that the vote was a right brave people would die for. I learned, too, that taking away the vote is the most effective way to disenfranchise entire groups.
Bill Maxwell is a columnist for the Tampa Bay Times.