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Race and Voter Suppression

Jim Crow Resurrected in Florida

by KARL SHEPARD

Voting rights are at the fore. You would be hard pressed to know that in Florid a despite the occasional letter to the editor ? 300 words or less.

I tried, I really did, but the Orlando Sentinel just cannot bring itself to discuss real issues. They are of course willing to spill ink on more than 8,000 words on Casey Anthony – but not the real issues that affect real voters and voter suppression.

The Orlando Sentinel is well beyond civilized discussion as is most of the nation.

Let me provide a poultice, an antidote, or flame to the fire:

Americans attained the right to vote in 1965 ? not 1865 with end of slavery. At the end of the Civil War, the white south delivered intimidation, degradation, rape, and lynching. White southern suppression of black voters was met with extreme violence.

With the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, the US finally honored its commitment to black voters. Finally, the 14th and 15th Amendments to the constitution adopted in 1868 and 1870 were upheld; the first of which is commonly called the "equal protection clause" and the second of which stated that voting could not be denied to any person based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

Like so much of what passes for conversation in our country, the discussion of voting rights in not just Florida but across the south, and across the nation generally is scarred with drivel; a confusion of voter fraud, for which there is little evidence, or in some cases the misguided arguments about some presumed notion of "rights vs. privileges".

Voting was a privilege in early America. Only white men that owned property (slaves included) could vote. That changed during and after the Civil War. Voting became a right. With the passage of the 14th, 15th, and in 1920, the 19th amendment, voting became a right of every US citizen born on US soil, women included.

Voter fraud in America at this point and time is a red herring.

It was only after college students came into play in Florida’s last general election that they became a group whose voting rights had to be suppressed. It remains to be seen if college students will participate in the same numbers as in the last general election. The now denied change of address at the polling station is a blatant instance of voter suppression. As anyone who has ever attended college knows, college students change their residence frequently.

The real frauds are the Tallahassee legislators and Florida’s governor, Rick Scott, who now deny the vote to poor minorities and those over 18 years old; the latter, old enough to die in war and old enough, after the 26th amendment, to vote. How ironic that these "America firsters", and proponents of American exceptionalism, supposedly "faithful to the constitution" now deny potential combatants their right to vote! (Not to mention national health care.)

But historically, voter suppression, especially in the south has always been about denying the black vote. The Democratic Party, the party of slavery and white supremacy, did so in the south from 1877 to about 1970. That changed when conservative Republicans opted for "the states right southern strategy" with the 1972 campaign of Richard Nixon.

LBJ pushed through the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965. And President Johnson was clear with words to the effect: "I have just delivered the south to the Republican party for the foreseeable future".

With a wink and nod, Nixon, in 1972, promised to not enforce the 1964 and 1965 Civil Rights Acts in exchange for the southern white vote. Thankfully that strategy, under Nixon, Reagan, and even Bush II were thwarted by congress. Still, the Republican Party has been at it ever since. They have now succeeded.

But for what it is worth, there is history.

The suppression of the black vote, and voting generally since the 1970′s, is a Republican strategy, not just in Florida, but in Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana. That is the reality. I defy anyone to show me that this is not true. Is it not enough to bring up Katherine Harris and Florida voter rolls purged of 55,000 African-American voters; the appalling lack of polling stations and long voter lines in the black parts of 2000 Florida and 2004 Ohio?

The super rich, the conservative white and retired do not want more voters. Neither do those whose campaigns are backed by that big money. Think I am wrong? Let us for a moment ask the flip question ? if big money and the conservative retired wanted more voters ? would they be giving money to those in favor of suppressing the vote of college students and minorities?

The real issue however is the suppression of black votes. The limits on voter registration (the signatures collected by those registering to vote in Florida must now be turned in within 48 hours) greatly impacts the ability to sign up new voters and is aimed directly at poor minorities and college students. Is it not enough that Florida, under Rick Scott, changed the amount of time that those who committed felonies (mostly on minor drug charges) are now required to wait five years instead of three before their civil and therefore voting rights can be reinstated?

Care to do a bit of southern history?

After reconstruction was ended throughout the south, Florida included, the question for southern Democrats was not how to make voters of former slaves, but how to intimidate them, to suppress their right to vote, and to make them work, and this is important ? at low wages. Cotton, sugar, tobacco, and the black stevedores in the ports of Florida, Tampa, Jacksonville, and Miami, were at stake. Not black workers as voters mind you, but as a nominally free but captive workforce, on plantations and ports, for profit.

The most depressed areas of the south are the cotton south. Does anyone ever wonder why the south for so long was not able to advance as quickly as the north? Or why the most depressed areas of the south are those areas that were subjected to the most intense development of plantation slavery? Has anyone visited the Mississippi Delta from Arkansas to just to north and west of Baton Rouge? Guess not, huh? Does anyone ask questions about what happened to those black voters in these areas?

Shall we delve deeper?

In the black majority states or near black majority states, the intimidation was intense. South Carolina and Mississippi had black majorities. Alabama, Florida, and Louisiana had just under black majorities. Georgia had just little a bit less than black majorities of those states listed. Death and intimidation met those that dared to challenge white supremacy.

Voter suppression after the end of reconstruction in 1877 consisted of lynching, threats of violence, and the denial of any job. That is the reality of black voter suppression.

Republicans want to carry out that reprehensible southern Democratic tradition. If their campaign contributors could get away with it, perhaps they would hire thugs to kill college students attempting to vote. It would be equivalent. It was just that bad from 1877 to 1965 in the south ? and just to make sure you understand this, in Florida.

Does anyone care about or remember the 1920 election in Florida?

Black voting rights were in play in the 1920 Florida election. Black WWI veterans that fought for democracy in Europe came home to find no democracy in the south. I guess that puts a real twist on anyone that wants to argue over "the rights and privileges of voting" when the aim is voter suppression, doesn’t it?

The 19th amendment giving the vote to women had just been ratified by enough states in the west and north. (The south was vehemently opposed to women’s suffrage. Florida, for example, ratified the 19th amendment in 1969. The state of Mississippi was the last in 1984.)

The white south knew that there were black majorities in many communities and that motivated women are a force difficult to control. True to form, black women registered in droves. Strong black women made their men register to vote and shamed those men that had not done so.

It led to the bloodiest election in US history. Ocoee, just outside of Orlando, was completely emptied of its black neighborhood of 500 residents in election related mob violence. Throughout Florida, white mobs stormed the voter lines, lynched some, mutilated others, chased many into swamps, shot many in the back, and burned black residences to the ground.

The 1920 Florida election was drowned in blood; and lost.

Welcome to the new face of Jim Crow ? in 2011 ? black people and college students. Perhaps Republicans and their conservative, rich backers will try to turn back the right of women to vote.

Or perhaps, conservatives would rather see a rerun of the 1920 election in Florida.

Karl Shepard is an adjunct professor of history at Valencia College in Orlando, Florida. He can be reached at karl.ss@att.net

Sources.

Paul Ortiz, Emancipation Betrayed, (A real eye-opener on Florida history to 1920)

W. J. Cash, The Mind of the South, (taught at the graduate level in the 50′s and 60′s)

Phillip Dray, Capitol Men, (a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2008)

Joseph P. Reidy, From Slavery to Agrarian Capitalism in the Cotton Plantation South, (a highly acclaimed account that deals mostly with Georgia)

Eugene Genovese, The World the Slaveholders Made, (a highly respected account of the differences between Caribbean and southern US slavery)