My Turn: Denying the Revolution

  • mactrunk

Published: 4/12/2021 4:08:25 PM

The new Georgia law placing restrictions on voting has predictably — and justifiably — generated a great deal of moral outrage across the nation. The law limits early voting, and increases the power of the Republican legislature to interfere in locally run elections. These measures are based on the totally unsupported theory that the 2020 election witnessed significant voter fraud.

The bizarre provision of the Georgia law that appears to make it unlawful to bring water to a potential voter waiting on line has been the object of the most ridicule nationally.

But the reaction to the law — like so much of the current rhetoric attacking “white supremacy” — is wildly exaggerated and has provided an opportunity for left wing Democrats and even centrist liberals to promote absolutely terrible history. Chief among these violations is the claim that the Georgia law somehow represents a return to the “Jim Crow” system of white supremacy that dominated the Southern United States during the first half of the 20th century.

The origins of the Jim Crow era, generally defined as state-mandated segregation but also applied to the suppression of African American voting rights and the imposition of numerous degrading social norms, is much debated by historians. Famously, the late C. Vann Woodward argued in his iconic “The Strange Career of Jim Crow” (1955) that the Southern system of white supremacy did not emerge immediately with the end of Reconstruction in the late 1870s, but in the 1890s. He pointed to the populist movement and the growth of U.S. imperialism leading to the Spanish-American war as decisive factors.

Vann Woodward’s book, which Martin Luther King called the “bible” of the civil rights movement because it suggested the Southern system was not cast in stone, has been the subject of a lively debate among historians over the years.

But one thing historians would probably not debate is that Black voting during the Jim Crow era was virtually non-existent. Measures such as the poll tax, grandfather clauses which tended to restrict voting to those whose ancestors had not been slaves, and especially the all-white party primary, which nearly rendered Black voting in one-party Southern states useless, destroyed the democratic rights of African Americans despite the Fifteenth Amendment to the constitution.

Then of course there was brutal state-supported mob and vigilante violence that targeted African Americans who attempted to vote. After returning from World War II, where he fought in the D Day invasion of Europe, Medgar Evers and his friends were forced away at gunpoint from voting at a local polling site in the South. A decade and a half later Evers was assassinated by a member of the so-called White Citizens Councils, a group with close organizational connections to the Southern political and economic power structure.

The result was that by the late 1920s, Black voting and voter registration were almost non-existent in most Southern states and African Americans rarely if ever served in state or national legislatures. The system began to unravel with court decisions in the 1940s, when the Supreme Court declared the poll tax unconstitutional. The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and early ’60s began as a protest against legal segregation but became transformed into a voting rights movement during the “Mississippi Summer” of 1964.

The voting rights act of 1965 was a revolutionary piece of legislation that transformed the Southern system of authoritarian, one-party rule. Black registration and voting increased dramatically in the late 1960s and these trends continued in the next decades. African Americans from the south began to serve in state legislatures, congress and as mayors and chiefs of police in cities and towns.

Revolutions do not produce total change and it is certainly reasonable to see elements of the “old order” in a new post-revolution synthesis. Take a look at the systems that emerged from the great French and Russian revolutions for example. In the modern American South, racial disparities in political and economic life continue today, and could increase as a result of voter restriction laws. But there will also be intense opposition to these laws which could well increase minority voter turnout. One of the so-called “lessons of history” is that the future is uncertain and unintended consequences abound.

The current anti-racism ideology denies these complexities in a moralistic barrage which tends to suppress debate, discussion and critical thinking about the past and the future. This repressive tendency, has briefly been successful in taking over the democratic, due perhaps to strong national sentiment against the more bizarre elements of the Georgia voting law.

But that national sentiment may soon disappear, in part due to the rhetorical excesses of Democrats. The left wing of the party certainly has a right to its opinions, but these should not become party policy in an outpouring of moral outrage and bad history.

Jeff Singleton is a retired professional historian and a current member of Montague Town Meeting.

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