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The New Jim Crow: Massive Disenfranchisement Returns

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Message Bob Fitrakis
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Co-author Harvey Wasserman

Crossposted at The Free Press


As we approach 2012, a massive machine designed to deprive millions of Americans of their vote has been activated. Given its ability to keep primarily young, poor, elderly and non-white voters from the polls, it alone could swing the election to Mitt Romney.

Though mentioning it elicits howls of protest from the GOP, in fact this new Jim Crow disenfranchisement is deeply rooted in our history. Should it turn the 2012 election to the Republicans, it will be only the latest in a two-century tradition of abuses aimed at keeping the rich in power.

As we saw in the previous chapter, the politics of the United States was dominated until the Civil War by the Electoral College and the 3/5ths bonus. It was a disenfranchisement unique in world history. It referenced slaves who were allowed no human or political rights---least of all the right to vote---but used their physical presence to enhance the electoral power of their owners.

In retrospect, it was an astonishing abuse of human decency in a nation that considered itself a democracy. Yet it was a defining factor in deciding who would occupy the White House right up to 1860. Its use in setting Congressional districts also guaranteed southern power in the US House.

Today there are comparable abuses, among them the practice of counting prison populations toward Congressional representation.

But after the Civil War, with the southern slaves now freed, disenfranchisement took a new turn. Though defeated by the Union, southern whites---through the Democratic Party and its terrorist army, the Ku Klux Klan---were determined not to allow African-Americans the ability to vote.

That right had just been enshrined in the federal Constitution. The 13th Amendment officially freed the slaves. The 14th, in language soon to be hijacked by the corporations, guaranteed them the right to due process. And the 15th, ratified in 1870, guaranteed all Americans the right to vote "regardless of race."

But there was a world of difference between clauses in the federal Constitution and the actual ability to vote in southern states. Almost immediately after the defeat of the Confederacy, its survivors began a reign of terror that kept African-Americans away from the polls for a century.

This was not an abstract issue. Throughout deep south African-Americans constituted more than 40% of the population. If they allied with a small percentage of liberal whites, they could dominate.

Under supervision of northern troops sent in during Reconstruction, they did just that. In the Carolinas, Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi and elsewhere, African-Americans were elected as sheriffs, mayors, state senators, governors, and members of Congress. They instituted a wide range of democratic reforms, including educational advances that let poor whites go to school for the first time.

All this was too much for Jackson's Democrats. From the 1860s through the 1970s, at least 3300 blacks were lynched in the south. Though many were seen as acts of random violence, the lynchings constituted a coordinated campaign designed to keep African-Americans away from the polls. When the stolen election of 1876 was followed by the withdrawal of federal troops, white supremacy again ruled the south.

At the core of the Jim Crow segregationist infrastructure were laws specifically aimed at disenfranchisement. The grandfather clause, literacy tests and poll taxes were the key. The poll tax was not banned by Constitutional Amendment until 1964.

Until deep in the 1970s, the Jim Crow south sent an unyielding phalanx of reactionary white supremacist Democrats into the Congress. In many cases they dominated committee leadership through the seniority clause, filibuster and other anti-democratic procedures that turned the US Congress into a white old-boys' club.

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