This article first appeared in the December 2004 issue of Socialism and Liberation, on the heels of the controversial last presidential election. It has been slightly edited for clarity.
About one week prior to the 2004 Presidential election, a conflict in Ohio drew national attention. The State Republican Party was attempting to challenge the validity of the registration of 35,000 new voters in 62 counties.
Besides challenging the registrations prior to the election, they also boasted of having recruited 3,600 people, each paid $100, to stand in polling places in urban neighborhoods to “challenge the qualifications” of those who came there to vote. In both instances, those being challenged were overwhelmingly African American and Latino voters.
What the GOP arranged in Ohio is the tip of the iceberg of a nationwide phenomenon with deep historical roots: the intentional disenfranchisement of voters of color. While it has come in many forms over the last few centuries, the exclusion of African Americans from U.S. politics has long been considered a necessity for the most right-wing elements of the ruling class. Because of the systematic nature of this exclusion, the struggle to secure this most basic bourgeois democratic right for people of color has often taken on a revolutionary character.
The legacy of slavery
With little exception, Black political representation in the U.S. prior to the Civil War was limited to the “three-fifths compromise” of 1787, a Constitutional clause that allowed enslaved African Americans to be counted as three-fifths of a person when deciding a state’s representation in the House of Representatives. This “compromise” was a concession to the wealthy white Southern slaveholders, allowing them to expand their political power by giving them the numerical benefit of a population that they oppressed. Of course, they were never representing the interest of African Americans, whom the 1856 Dred Scott decision established “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
This situation was overturned by the Civil War. The 14th Amendment, passed in 1868, recognized Black people’s citizenship. Two years later, the 15th Amendment granted African American males the right to vote.
Both of these were reforms passed during the period known as Reconstruction (1865-1876). These years immediately following the Civil War were the most radical period of democratic change in U.S. history.
The Civil War was a profound social revolution in terms of property relations. The long and bloody war brought an end to the system that held human beings as property, freeing African Americans from plantation slavery in the South. This made it a revolutionary war—despite the fact that its leadership was for the most part not, known as revolutionary or even anti-racist.
Abraham Lincoln’s name is most associated with leading the North during the Civil War. He represented the moderate wing of the Republican Party, which was for the preservation of the Union in the face of the slave owners’ revolt but was officially opposed to the elimination of the institution of slavery. But there were a significant number of Radical Republicans in Congress who believed in the equality of African Americans.
Radical Republicans like Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner had been opponents of Lincoln’s refusal to allow runaway slaves into the Union Army during the Civil War prior to 1863. In the chaos of war, thousands of slaves escaped and took refuge with Northern army units. They demanded to be given arms and to join the Northern army. Lincoln relented and signed the Emancipation Proclamation, outlawing slavery, as a military measure. Without the addition of combat-eager ex-slaves, the North could not have prevailed over the Confederate army.
After Lincoln was assassinated, the Radical Republicans opposed—with limited success—President Andrew Johnson’s attempts to undermine the rights of African Americans during Reconstruction. But the Radical Republicans did force the Southern states to ratify the 14th Amendment and guarantee voting rights for all adult men as a condition to re-enter the Union.
Military dictatorship and Black democracy
During Reconstruction, the Southern states were under direct military rule of the Northern forces. They were divided into five military districts, each under the administration of a Union general. While pro-Confederate propaganda like “Gone with the Wind” portrays this as a regrettable time of military dictatorship, it was precisely the military dictatorship of the North over the South that safeguarded the newly won democratic rights of African Americans.
After the Civil War, the new state functioned as an instrument of coercion against the dispossessed former ruling class—in this case, the slavocracy. The resistance by the slave-owning class actually intensified after their defeat. The Northern dictatorship in the South was a precondition for the exercise of formal democracy for the formerly enslaved African Americans, who were politically powerless against white repression.
During Reconstruction, there was a flowering of democracy for African Americans that has not been seen since. In the 11 years following the Civil War, the Freedmen’s Bureau spent $17 million building 4,000 schools and 100 hospitals and finding employment and housing for former slaves. With Black suffrage, there were 17 African Americans elected to the House of Representatives and 2 elected to the Senate.
The end of Reconstruction
Reconstruction was ended by the Compromise of 1877, when presidential candidates Hayes and Tilden settled the disputed 1876 election by granting the Republicans the Presidency in exchange for the withdrawal of the Northern military from the South. This agreement returned political power in the South to the Southern Democrats, representing the old Southern slave powers. It was disastrous for African Americans.
In effect, the dictatorship of the Northern army was replaced with a different kind of dictatorship: that of the racist establishment. Former leaders of the Confederate army founded the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist organization whose primary -objective was to terrorize Black people (and some sympathetic whites) in order to keep African Americans from voting and gaining any measure of equality.
In the period immediately following Reconstruction, the political gains made by African Americans in the South were drowned in blood. That was the beginning of what is known as the Jim Crow era—the period when intense segregation was codified in law and often accompanied by extralegal terror against African Americans. Between 1889 and 1930, over 3,700 African Americans were reported lynched. Many more suffered brutality that went unreported.
This violence was particularly aimed at the disenfranchisement of Black voters. Other obstacles to voting were written into laws like poll taxes, the “grandfather clause” and literacy tests. In 1896, the Supreme Court upheld the Plessy v Ferguson case that legalized segregation.
Jim Crow segregation was finally defeated by the militant and determined struggle of African Americans and their allies. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s—culminating in the 1964 Civil Rights Act—was a political revolution that brought to an end legal apartheid in the United States. The sit-ins, walk-outs, boycotts and marches that were launched all across the country against violent opposition from the racist reactionary elements forced concessions from the capitalist government, which had to grant equal rights to African Americans, especially equal voting rights.
The shadow of Jim Crow
The 1965 Voting Rights Act and later rulings tore down many of the legal restrictions on Black voting. So it is absurd that 40 years later, right-wing elements of the ruling class can so blatantly prepare to subvert the basic democratic rights of nationally oppressed communities in the U.S. But that is exactly what has been done over the last few decades.
One recent tactic to prevent African Americans from voting is the use of “poll-watchers” to intimidate voters. In Philadelphia in 2003, men with clipboards, in black sedans, and bearing insignia designed to look like DEA and ATF badges were dispatched to African American neighborhoods to ask potential voters for identification. In Pine Bluff, Arkansas, in 2002, Republican poll watchers reportedly asked for identification from Black voters and photographed them, before they could vote. The chair of the county election commission said, “They are trying to intimidate African American voters into not voting. … They were literally going up to them and saying ‘Before you vote, I want to see your identification.’”
In Maryland in 2003 prior to the local election, signs were posted anonymously in African American neighborhoods that not only listed the wrong day for voting but warned that “parking tickets and overdue rent should be paid before voting.”
Many civil rights organizations have carefully documented a wide array of instances of interference with the voting rights of oppressed communities within the U.S. The NAACP compiled an extensive report entitled “The Long Shadow of Jim Crow: Voter Intimidation and Suppression in America Today.” It catalogues systematic and widespread disenfranchisement over the past two decades.
One of the examples it includes is a case where armed officers from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement were sent to Orlando to question elderly Black voters in their homes, supposedly as part of an investigation of “voting irregularities” in their March 2003 mayoral election. Members of Congress are calling for an investigation of this blatant attempt at intimidation.
In Florida and twelve other states, convicted felons are permanently disenfranchised. This fact has a disproportionate impact on the Black population. Nationwide, according to an article in the Winter 2004 issue of Human Rights (published by the American Bar association), there are 4 million voters who are disenfranchised as felons—2 percent of the adult population. Yet 13 percent of Black male adults cannot vote due to felony convictions.
Mass struggle and democratic rights
Faced with situations like the ones mentioned here, some are calling on the U.S. Justice Department to investigate racist disenfranchisement—as it is legally supposed to do. But it would be naïve to assume that Attorney General John Ashcroft, a notorious racist, or his successor could be trusted as a defender of civil rights in this system. Ashcroft is known for praising the racist publication Southern Partisan. Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting described that magazine as one “that defends slavery, white separatism, apartheid and David Duke; a publication that celebrates the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, while delivering a ‘mixed review’ of Lincoln’s assassin.”
The simple right to vote for African Americans, basic to bourgeois democracy, had to be won on the battlefield and defended over and over in the streets. This fact alone shows that extreme racism is an institutional feature of U.S. capitalism. It exposes the lie of U.S. “democracy”—in reality a system based on national oppression.
It is also for this reason that the struggle against racist disenfranchisement is an important part of the general struggle against the corporate elite that run this country. The end of the Civil War unleashed a wave of strikes and protests in cities and factories across the North against naked capitalist exploitation. The civil rights movement not only defeated Jim Crow segregation. It also broke the back of McCarthyite anticommunism and opened the door for militant and revolutionary antiwar and liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s.
The struggle for democratic rights of African Americans and other oppressed nationalities in the U.S. deserves support from the broadest layers of the progressive and working class movement.