Voting rights still aren’t a guarantee for Georgia

As the 2020 election season draws to a merciful close, all eyes remain on Georgia. The state voted Democratic in the presidential election — for the first time since 1992 — with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger officially certifying the vote for President-elect Joe Biden on Friday. Now, control of the U.S. Senate depends on a pair of runoff elections on Jan. 5.

Ever since African Americans first secured the right to vote in Georgia, white supremacists have worked to take it away from them.

No single factor adequately explains the rise of the new “blue Georgia,” but the role of Black voters there, especially in the younger generations, stands out as a fundamentally important development, one that has the potential to cement the changes there for decades to come. And given the history of suppression of the Black vote in Georgia, the emergence of this key demographic is nothing short of remarkable.

Ever since African Americans first secured the right to vote in Georgia, white supremacists have worked to take it away from them.

Nov. 19, 202003:30

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, white Georgians crafted an elaborate series of new rules and regulations to block Black voting, including a cumulative and costly poll tax, an impossible-to-answer “literacy test,” and property qualifications. (Poor whites who might have been barred by these restrictions had their voting rights restored through the so-called grandfather clause.) Most significantly, Georgia made the Democratic Party’s primary — the only primary that mattered at all in the one-party “Solid South” — a purely whites-only affair.

By the end of World War II, however, much of the official structure of disfranchisement had been dismantled, due to rulings by federal courts and changes in state laws. As their legal schemes of suppression unraveled, white supremacists resorted to extralegal programs of intimidation and violence to block Black voting. In 1946, Gov. Gene Talmadge was asked how they might keep African Americans away from the polls. The demagogic Democrat picked up a scrap of paper and wrote a single word on it: “Pistols.”

In Taylor County, a Black veteran who dared to vote in the now-open Democratic Primary was dragged from his home and shot to death by four white men.

The governor’s supporters took him seriously, singling out Black voters for violent retribution. In Taylor County, a Black veteran who dared to vote in the now-open Democratic primary was dragged from his home and shot to death by four white men. Afterward, they nailed a sign up at a local Black church: “The First N—– to Vote Will Never Vote Again.” In Walton County, midway between Atlanta and Athens, a white mob gunned down two Black couples in an open field; one body was riddled with 180 bullets. “This thing’s got to be done to keep Mister N—– in his place,” a local coldly explained. “Since the state said he could vote, there ain’t been any holding him.”

Black Georgians, however, refused to stay in the “place” white supremacists assigned for them, and continued to press for full voting rights, prompting predictable responses from segregationists.

In “Terrible Terrell” County, in the southwestern section of the state, Sheriff Zeke Mathews and a dozen armed men barged into a voter-registration meeting at a Black church in July 1962. Smoking a cigar, the sheriff told the congregation that the white community was “a little fed up with this voter registration business. We want our colored people to go on living like they have for the past 100 years.” When Black activists persisted with their plans, that same church and another involved in the voting drive were firebombed that September. White terrorists fired shots into the homes of Black leaders and dynamited others, too.

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As the campaigns to suppress the Black vote grew uglier, the federal government finally stepped in. First, it secured justice for past offenses with lawsuits against Mathews and other law enforcement officials who had used their positions to intimidate Black voters. Then it worked to prevent further disfranchisement through the protections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The landmark legislation wrought a revolution in voting rights across the South. In Georgia, the percentage of eligible Black voters who were registered to vote more than doubled from 1965 to 1988, closing the gap between African American and white registration rates to the point where the two were nearly identical.

While it helped boost Black registration across the South, the Voting Rights Act also worked to ensure that Black votes were counted fairly. A key element of the law required that states with a history of voter suppression — such as Georgia — had to obtain “pre-clearance” from the Department of Justice before making any changes to their election procedures. Over five decades, the vigilance of the federal government blocked 177 proposed changes in Georgia, ranging from redistricting to restricting the schedule for elections.

The Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, however, eviscerated the Voting Rights Act, ending the pre-clearance requirement and opening the door for renewed campaigns of voter suppression.

As this new wave of voter suppression sweeps across Georgia, Black Georgians are once again fighting back.

Georgia’s secretary of state at the time, Brian Kemp, a Republican, purged an estimated 1.4 million voters from the rolls from 2010 to 2018, with nearly 670,000 removed from the rolls in 2017 alone. A year later, Kemp blocked registration efforts from 53,000 state residents, 70 percent of them Black. At the same time, his office closed 214 polling sites across Georgia, predominantly in poorer counties with sizable African American populations. As he wrapped up this massive campaign of voter suppression in 2018, Kemp ran for governor himself. He won, but by the narrowest margin in nearly 50 years — roughly 55,000 votes.

As this new wave of voter suppression sweeps across Georgia, Black Georgians are once again fighting back. This time, notably, they’re not fighting the Democratic Party that produced Gene Talmadge and Zeke Mathews; they’re leading it. The chair of the state party is African American, as are the party’s leaders in the incoming session of the General Assembly and state Senate.

Most notably, Kemp’s opponent in the 2018 race, Stacey Abrams, was the first African American to win the Democratic Party’s nomination for governor there. After her narrow loss in that race, Abrams has been working tirelessly to combat the new campaigns of voter suppression in Georgia and elsewhere through her organization Fair Fight. The work she and countless other Black activists have done in the state have given the Rev. Raphael Warnock the best shot yet to become the state’s first African American senator and, should Abrams challenge Kemp again in 2022, the best chance for her to become the state’s first African American governor as well.

Still, President Donald Trump continues to insist that the election has been stolen from him, that people’s hard-won votes were fraudulent, and that he had the opportunity and the right to overturn the results. It’s a thinly veiled echo of the racial ugliness that has underpinned voting legislation in Georgia and in most states. Georgia’s Black voters have overcome improbable odds to turn their state blue in an extremely crucial election. But the energy being poured into erasing this Democratic victory — and their democratic victory —are proof that the fight for equal voting rights in this country is long from over and won.

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