As many of you probably know, the Supreme Court has struck down a portion of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which stipulates that jurisdictions judged to have a history of discriminatory voting practices must get federal approval before making any change related to voting. There have been allegations that this provision singled out the South. This is nonsense. States such as Maine and New Hampshire have been included in this provision, even though Maine and New Hampshire were actually among only a few states that did not have racially discriminatory voting laws prior to the Civil War. Meanwhile, North Carolina only had certain counties covered. Arkansas had a racially motivated poll tax until the practice was banned by constitutional amendment but was left out of the Voting Rights Act. Perhaps it was felt that Arkansas had shown proof of being free from racism, while Maine and New Hampshire had not. After all, in 1957, Governor Edmund Muskie of Maine tried to use the National Guard to keep the state’s schools segregated. Oh wait, that was Orval Faubus of Arkansas. Bias against the South? Not hardly. In fact, the Voting Rights Act goes out of its way to avoid even the appearance of regional bias, except perhaps against the Northeast. However, Alabama feels that it should no longer be required to submit changes to voting for federal approval. Rather than attempt to go through the process to convince the feds that the state has reformed enough to “opt out” of the preclearance requirement, Alabama appealed to the Supreme Court and got an important portion of a very important law changed. Hence the title of my blog post. Now, this is not to imply that all Alabamans are racist or that they are responsible for the wrongs of their ancestors. However, the fact remains that states like Alabama were disproportionately likely during the Jim Crow era to take measures to prevent blacks from voting. That means that special steps have to be taken to make sure that they do not repeat these actions. That is why the state’s voting practices were still subjected to oversight until the court wrongfully intervened. It reminds me of when Trent Lott of Mississippi claimed that the Voting Rights Act unfairly targeted his state. This was the same man who had tried to keep his college fraternity segregated. So if he wondered why his state was getting special attention from the feds for racial discrimination, he might have wanted to look in the mirror. If non-racist Alabamans object, they should blame the Dixiecrats who used poll taxes, literacy tests, and other malarchy to discriminate against African American voters. Keeping voting free from racial discrimination must outweigh the conveniences of state officials. It is not as though all white Alabamans are being held in jail for the sins of some of their ancestors. That would indeed be very unjust. This portion of the Voting Rights Act, however, was not a punishment but a precaution. And it is not as if racism is not still a problem. Public displays of Confederate Flags are hardly freak occurrences, interracial marriages still encounter stigma, and public figures like Pat Buchanan, Michael Savage, Haley Barbour, Ann Coulter, Ron and Rand Paul, and Rush Limbaugh have expressed racist statements in recent years. Again, the preclearance clause of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a precaution against racial discrimination in voting. And a necessary precaution. Like the attempt to implement voter I.D. laws, this challenge to the preclearance clause was mistaken and, among some individuals, motivated by racism. It would be wrong to believe that Lincoln Chaffee, who had a strong record on race issues as a U.S. Senator, signed Rhode Island’s voter I.D. law out of racism. But are we wrong to be suspicious when, as Governor of Mississippi, Haley Barbour praised the state’s voter I.D. law and the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens? Likewise, while some people probably have sincere, non racist reasons for the stance that they are taking on the Voting Rights Act, I cannot help but fear that others are motivated by insidious bigotry. I should note, however, that the situation is not as apocalyptic as some fear. Even though the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of Alabama, it will not result in the repeal of the whole act, just the specific preclearance portion.
Monthly Archives: June 2013
As some of you may notice, this is my 75th blog post. This milestone has special significance for me, as 75 is my favorite number. I am also glad that I no longer have only seventy-four blog posts published, as I despise the number 74. It is so close to 75 and yet falls just short of it. (76 is a perfectly nice number.) Now onto the main point of today’s post. I regret not going to the Atlanta History Center more often. It’s a very good museum with some wonderful exhibits. However, prior to yesterday, I had not been since Fall 2010, perhaps because my historical work is rather eclectic. Still, I was determined to attend the Center’s exhibit on Thomas Jefferson and slavery, since taking most of the Founding Fathers to task and demonstrating that they are not heroes is a longtime goal of mine. I was concerned that this exhibit would engage in rationalization of wrongdoing, but I had hopes that it would give Jefferson the excoriation he deserves. When I left the exhibit, my reaction was mixed. On the one hand, they did not do a lot to sugarcoat the details of Jefferson’s slaveholding. Upon walking in, viewers are greeted by a statue of Jefferson. I would be disgusted by the presence of such a statue were it not for the thing behind it: a wall listing the names of slaves held by Jefferson. I thought it was a good way to really drive the point home about the ugly side of America’s third president. There was a very human touch to the exhibit, as visitors are treated to the stories of individual blacks enslaved by Jefferson. It is made clear that children were forced to work alongside the adults, some of them in the nailery, where boys had to swing a hammer over a hot forge up to 20,000 times a day. The horrors of slavery in general are illustrated partly through the display of devices used to restrain slaves. There is not much in the way of the “not all slaves were abused” tripe we still hear from some people. The people who designed the exhibit seem to grasp an obvious fact: holding someone as a slave is automatically abuse. One plaque had a piece of information that was correct but worded in a confusing way. The plaque said, in essence, that Virginia slaves were typically given off Christmas, Easter, and “Whitsun,” seven weeks after Easter. Whitsun, better known as Pentecost, is a holiday that falls on the seventh Sunday after Easter. Of course, it is only one day. The intention of the plaque was probably not to mislead. Still, I first thought upon reading it that the writer of the plaque had intended to imply that slaves did not have to work for seven weeks after Easter, a very different meaning than saying slaves got ONE DAY off and that this day took place seven weeks after Easter. This is only a minor criticism and is actually less of a problem than a part of the Center’s Lincoln exhibit from 2010. In that exhibit, a quote from the Sixteenth president was featured with the last sentence missing, an omission that made Lincoln look more racist than he actually was. Much more problematic than the confusingly worded sentence about Whitsun is the way in which the exhibit refuses to take its own facts to their logical conclusion. Rather than saying that Jefferson was not an admirable man or simply letting visitors form their own views, the exhibit seems to try to excuse his actions to some extent. For one thing, there is talk about how he “could not” extricate himself from the system of slavery. “Could not” implies some sort of concrete impossibility. It would have certainly have been possible for him to become a proto-Garrisonian abolitionist (yes, I know Garrison was not even born until Jefferson’s presidency), tell his slaves that he would not stop them from leaving his plantation, and refuse to enforce the system of slavery in any way. If he had done these things, Jefferson would have been a hero. He chose not to. At the end of the day, money, power, and convenience mattered more to him than the freedom of blacks, and his actions were also tinged by racism. It was not that he could not do the right thing with regard to slavery. Rather, he would not. The other disturbing part of the exhibit is that it tries to give Jefferson at least partial credit for events like the Civil Rights Movement. Because, the thinking goes, Jefferson wrote “All Men are Created Equal,” he should get credit for the strides of individuals such as Frederick Douglass, Wendell Phillips, Sojourner Truth, and Martin Luther King, Jr. This idea is absurd. The fact that someone wrote down a moral principle, then chose not live up to it, does not mean they should get credit for the fact that nobler people decided to actually put that principle into practice. It is also very faulty logic to assume that the Phillipses, Douglasses, Truths, and Kings of America decided to fight for freedom, justice, and equality because they read Jefferson’s words. Could one not just as easily say that they came to their conclusions independent of Jefferson and then simply used Jefferson’s words in support of these conclusions? And if the various equality movements of America only existed because of the work of Jefferson and other founders, why has the United States not consistently been the first country to enact the goals of these movements? A slew of nations banned slavery in 1830s and 1840s, avoided a comprehensive legal of system of Jim Crow, and many countries have made far more progress on gay rights than the United States. Furthermore, the Declaration of Independence was less revolutionary than it is commonly made out to be. In 1769, an Englishman named Granville Sharp, who was better at living up to his ideals than Jefferson, wrote an antislavery tract. The Atlanta History Center’s exhibit is a good one, but it falls victim to the practice of turd polishing.