Remembering History


When Donald Trump asks his supporters to go to certain neighborhoods to “watch” at the polls on Election Day, he clearly has never known, has forgotten, or does not care about the painful, tragic, and racist history of voting in the United States. He does not remember the days when African Americans faced torture and terrorism for exercising their constitutional right to vote. He does not remember that the franchise was restricted to white citizens in many states where slavery was against the law. Remembering history, we as a nation will not go back to those days.
It is important to remember that the founders did not trust ordinary people. To this day, the president and vice president are not elected by the popular vote. When the Constitution was first adopted, qualifications for voting rights was a state matter. In most states, the franchise was restricted to white men who held property. In the early 1800s only five state allowed free black men to vote – New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, and North Carolina. Later as voting rights for white men expanded with some states dropping the requirement that voters own property, the property requirement remained for black men. After the Nat Turner rebellion, blacks lost the right to vote in North Carolina.
African Americans were second class citizens throughout the United States both before and after the Civil War. Between 1820 and 1850 blacks in Philadelphia and other cities were the targets of mob violence with their offense being “uppity behavior.” Thus, whiteness carries with it social, economic, and political privilege.
In the PBS documentary “Africans in America”, historian Margaret Washington comments on racism in the north.
“So it would seem as though the nation itself had an attitude that African Americans were inferior. And if you look at some of the laws that were in existence in the northern states, African Americas were not supposed to ride on streetcars; African Americans were not supposed to ride on steamers. The whole idea of Jim Crow and segregation of the races really originates in the north. African Americans couldn’t vote in the north. African Americans couldn’t vote in most states, even if they owned property.”
Any white immigrant coming into the country had more rights than blacks. Washington says: “So while immigration became a form of economic and social mobility for whites, it became a form of degradation for African Americans.”
Because social, economic, and political privileges were reserved for white people, whiteness becomes an important category. In the same documentary, historian Noel Ignatiev observes:
“So definitely white people gained from the system of racial supremacy. Without that whiteness itself would have been a meaningless category. It would have only been a physical description like tall.”
After the Civil War when blacks in the south were given the right to vote, it became an affirmation of their political personhood. Historian David W. Blight speaking in part two of the “American Experience” documentary on the reconstruction says about the vote:
“It was a physical manifestation of their freedom. It meant that somebody was actually recognizing them as a political human being. The right to vote was like breathing life into them.”
In that same program, historian Clarence E. Walker says:
“Black voting carried with it an enormous meaning. It meant that political power was going to be shared between blacks and whites. This is a very frightening thing for many white southerners because they have in effect lost control over what they have deemed to be their birth right which is their right to run these governments.”
Blacks were elected to help craft several post-bellum state constitutions which granted voting rights to black men. They interpreted these constitutions to mean they also had the right to hold office and to be considered equal citizens. White men read the constitutions in such a way to deny blacks the right to hold elected office. Whites in the Georgia legislature voted to expel its black members, but black men such a Henry McNeal Turner insisted that they were entitled to hold their seats. Some were tortured and terrorized but refused to yield.
When President Grant refused to send federal troops to protect black legislators and black men voting, the 15th amendment to the constitution notwithstanding, the franchise for black men was violently taken away. Blacks were shot and killed in broad day light. Newspapers called for the murder of black men who wanted to vote. Clarence Walker says:
“What you have now is the overturning of a democratic process by illegitimate means.”
There would be more work to do to guarantee voting rights for African American people. The 24th amendment to the constitution forbade poll taxes in federal elections. Southern states still required literacy tests and used tactics of intimidation such as lynching, beatings, and the loss of one’s home and or job if a black man or woman wanted to register to vote. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was the result of nonviolent protest during the Civil Rights Movement which also cost lives.
Now Trump is telling his supporters to show up at polling places in cities such as Philadelphia, Chicago and St Louis. The clear implication is that African Americans will try to steel the election for Hillary Clinton. This is nonsense. Studies have shown that in person voter fraud is almost non-existent in the United States. The real threat to a fair election is legislation proposed in many states to require voter identification that is difficult for some people to get. It amounts to a kind of poll tax.
The days of white people showing up at black polling places to “watch” as a form of intimidation are over. Too much blood, sweat, and tears have been shed to gain equal citizenship in the United States. We are not going back to those horrific days. Historical memory and our ancestral spirits will give us the courage to resist anyone or any act that will seek to deny us equal access and our right to the franchise.
Valerie Elverton Dixon is founder of and author of “Just Peace Theory Book One: Spiritual Morality, Radical Love, and the Public Conversation.”

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