Republicans today know that blocking access to the ballot has always relied on legal maneuvering and political schemes.
Seventy-five years ago this July, a World War II veteran named Maceo Snipes reportedly became the first Black man to cast a ballot in his rural Georgia county. The next day, a white man shot him in his front yard, and Mr. Snipes soon died from those wounds.
Fortunately, three generations removed from the political reign of terror that claimed Mr. Snipes’s life, voter suppression seems much less likely to arrive by bullet. But we may not be as distant in our political moment from theirs as we might think: The long struggle to block access to the ballot has always relied on legal maneuvering and political schemes to achieve what bullets and bombs alone could not.
What legislators in Georgia and across the country have reminded us is that backlash to expanded voting rights has often arrived by a method that our eras have in common: by laws, like Georgia’s Senate Bill 202, passed by elected politicians.
Opponents of the new Georgia law denounce the legislation as “Jim Crow 2.0” precisely because they recognize the continuities between past and present. The bill’s most ardent supporters, who lined up in front of a painting of a building on the site of an antebellum plantation to watch Gov. Brian Kemp sign it into law, seem less interested in distancing themselves from that past and more eager for Americans to forget it.
“Our country has changed,” Chief Justice John Roberts explained in 2013 in defending the Supreme Court’s gutting a key provision of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, a decision that helped clear the way for the current voter suppression campaigns. Yet the riot at the U.S. Capitol makes clear that concerted efforts to sow seeds of distrust in the democratic process can still stoke violent reaction.
The methods in the fight against voting rights have a common objective — an electorate narrowed along predictable and demonstrable fault lines. Many present-day proponents of voting restrictions are quick to distance themselves from the racist aims and attitudes of their forebears, but the most durable and enduring attacks on voting rights have long cloaked their goals in race-neutral language — at least in writing.
Historians like Carol Anderson demonstrate that attempts to limit ballot access have arrived in the wake of mass political mobilization and in response to federal efforts to protect or expand voting rights. At the time Mr. Snipes was killed, the U.S. Supreme Court had recently invalidated the white primary, a disenfranchisement tactic that locked Black voters out of the only election that really mattered because of one-party rule in the “Solid South.” The N.A.A.C.P., which grew from 50,000 to approximately half a million members during World War II, spearheaded the legal challenge to the white primary and grass-roots voter registration drives across the South. Anticipating that Black voters would flood the polls in 1946, Eugene Talmadge, the ex-governor running for the office again, mobilized supporters to ward off threats from local activists and federal action alike.
Mr. Talmadge egged on supporters who intimidated and attacked Black voters, but his most enduring and effective tactics look much more like present-day voter suppression tactics. As the Emory researcher Hannah Charak has documented, Mr. Talmadge quietly collaborated with sympathetic local officials on illegal registration purges and blanketed the state with “challenge forms” that white residents could use to dispute Black votes.
Voter suppression tactics like literacy tests and Georgia’s infamous county unit system delivered racist leadership like Mr. Talmadge (and his son) while withstanding legal challenges and Supreme Court rulings for decades in part because such measures commonly avoided mention of race.
If we remember Georgia’s extremist enemies of democracy for the violence they inspired, then today’s advocates of voter suppression may well expect history to reflect favorably on their relative restraint. Yet even as many supporters of Georgia’s new voting restrictions seek to distance themselves from the violence at the Capitol, they invoke unproven claims of voter fraud and the passions they provoke as a pretext for their legislative actions — political cover for those who claim the high ground of “electoral reform.”
Georgia is now a far cry from the one-party politics of Jim Crow, and its increasingly diverse population challenges the power of the overwhelmingly white and disproportionately rural ruling class that has held sway for nearly all of the state’s history — thanks in large part to an unending stream of voter suppression schemes.
The ruling logic that drives those efforts, spanning generations and a dramatic shift in party affiliation, is the conviction that America would be better off if fewer Americans voted. Perhaps it is time not only to focus on those who say the quiet parts out loud but to remember that the quiet parts have been there all along.
Jason Morgan Ward, a professor of history at Emory University, is the author of “Defending White Democracy: The Making of a Segregationist Movement and the Remaking of Racial Politics, 1936-1965” and, most recently, “Hanging Bridge: Racial Violence and America’s Civil Rights Century.”
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