Righting America

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The Descendants of Jim Crow Segregationists Are Carrying On the Tradition of Suppressing Voting Rights | Righting America

by Rodney Kennedy 

Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. He pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton (OH) – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years, after which he served as interim pastor of ABC USA churches in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Kansas. He is currently interim pastor of Emmanuel Friedens Federated Church, Schenectady, NY. His seventh book,  Good and Evil in the Garden of Democracy, has recently been published. And book #8, Dancing with Metaphors in the Pulpit, will appear very soon

Florida, Alabama, North Carolina, Mississippi, and Louisiana are callously ignoring the rulings of U. S. Federal courts, including the Supreme Court, ordering them to create legislative maps that give African American voters a greater chance of having a second majority representation district. In this they are repeating the sins of the era of segregation. They are spitting on the Voting Act and the Civil Rights Act. 

Governor DeSantis and the other old-time Southern politicians and preachers have exhumed the corpse of Jim Crow and pronounced him to have been a good man at the time of his demise. The practical result intends to restore the power of majority-white legislatures to repress the vote of African Americans. Same old Crow. 

The Supreme Court has already ruled against Alabama, but the Alabama Attorney General is delaying and attempting to block the ruling of the Supreme Court. Louisiana is dragging its heels on the drawing of the new legislative map. North Carolina Republicans flipped their Supreme Court to overrule its own previous decision to prevent racial gerrymanders benefiting Republicans. At stake are voting rights for all Americans. 

While insisting they are not racist (the new defense for being racist), these Southern states claim they are only trying to eliminate fraud in voting. That no evidence of fraud exists only magnifies the arrogance of these Dixie states. 

In February, 2023 white representatives in the Mississippi House approved a bill to create a new district—that includes all of the majority-white neighborhoods in Jackson, a capital city that is 83 percent Black. 

State Rep. Trey Lamar, the white Republican sponsor of the bill, holds a seat once held by his grandfather, Leon Hannaford. Representative Hannaford introduced a 1962 bill that would have stopped James Meredith from filing suit to enter the University of Mississippi.

Rights are slippery entities. Rights bestowed in one generation can be retracted, eliminated, and removed in a new generation. Even the twin mountains of the Bill of Rights and the U. S. Constitution have trouble maintaining the rights of African Americans. The tangled history of voting rights is largely explained by the persistent struggles over maintaining a majority for the Republican party. 

The Fog of Revisionist History

Lurking behind these southern state legal shenanigans of southern states is an evangelical fog of revisionist history. In Florida, for example, the legislature has passed a law attempting to ensure that white students not be made “uncomfortable” with the stories of our nation’s racist past. This revisionist history is not history; it is propaganda. White preachers once defended slavery and segregation with the Bible. Now, they defend white privilege with the same Bible. Same old story. Same old white people. 

Racism is the core of this upheaval of assailing the voting power of African Americans. Robert Rowland argues that this nationalist populism appeals to whites who believe they have lost status. They are moving to consolidate “white power” by promising a return to the national greatness of an earlier time when “real Americans” – white people – were in charge. 

Whites, the true patriots, want walls to prevent non-white immigration. Facing minority status by the middle of the 21st century, they want laws that reduce Black voting power. 

Revisionist history hides under an alleged “color blindness” that allows whites to take out their resentment on minorities while crying, “We are not racists” or “We are color blind.” Dissipating this fog of propaganda reveals the false purity of racial innocence. The naïve attempt by whites to write a different story than the actual American story is doomed to failure. 

The corollary to having no story is the claim that the current generation of white people were not there. They didn’t enslave people, segregate from Blacks, or lynch them. This is a historical fallacy because we are all linked to all humanity. For a people who insist on tracing their origin back to a literal Adam, it seems odd that they would want to excise entire histories of their existence. Biblical literalists can’t get back to Adam by excising the generations from 1619 to the present from history. There are no innocent people in America’s racist existence. 

Once upon a time, the slavers, segregationists, and lynchers lifted up their eyes in Hades. They cried, “Father Abraham, send one of those Black boys to get me a cup of water.” But Abraham said, “Remember that during your lifetime you were rich and powerful, and you mistreated and murdered Blacks.” All the tortured white people cried, “We have ancestors who are following in our tracks. Send someone to warn them so they they will not also come into this place of torment.” Abraham told them, “They have the Bible; they should read it.” But the whites screamed, “Send someone from the dead and they will repent.” He said to them, “If they do not listen to the Word of God, neither will they be convinced by a messenger from the grave.”

The voices of the dead are crying out. If you put your ear to the ground in the black soil of the Mississippi Delta, you can hear them still. Southern oak-lined lanes fill with honeysuckle, but if you look closely you will see the blood stains. 

Voices, some silenced by murder, now cry out from southern soil to protest a new outbreak of white politicians attempting to repress the votes of African Americans. Burned into our brains is the picture of Governor George Wallace standing in the door of an Alabama public school to prevent the end of segregation. This should be the poster ad for the current attempts not to have a second African American majority district in Alabama.

George Wallace, Governor of Alabama, stoically blocks the doors of the University of Alabama with three State Troopers standing alongside him.
George Wallace at schoolhouse door. Via HoustonChronicle.com.

There are portraits hanging in the Hall of White Memory that will not fade into obscurity or be covered by the fog of propaganda. The sins of whites can’t be rendered invisible by state laws passed by the descendants of slavers, segregationists, and lynchers. 

Pictures Destroy the Fog of Propaganda

In 1961, a busload of Freedom Riders received a brutal beating from a white mob in Birmingham, Alabama. The riders made it as far as Montgomery where another mob gave them another vicious beating. 

A group of African American "Freedom Riders" stand next to, and sit on the ground beside, a burning Greyhound bus, with smoke billowing out of the entrance door.
14 May 1961, Anniston, Alabama, USA — Passengers of this smoking Greyhound bus, some of the members of the “Freedom Riders,” a group sponsored by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), sit on the ground after the bus was set afire 5/14, by a mob of Caucasians who followed the bus from the city. The mob met the bus at the terminal, stoned it & slashed the tires, then followed the bus from town. BPA2# 47. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

In Tylertown, Mississippi, where police officers just went out and systematically whipped on a large number of Negroes every Saturday night, where there was a designated “Beating Ground” not far from the city.

Mississippi Lynching. Image via icp.org.

In the Winona, Mississippi jail, African Americans working for voting rights were beaten by prison guards. One of the leaders of the movement, Mrs. Hamer described the beating of a fifteen-year-old girl: 

I could hear them licks just soundin’. . . . But anyway, she kept screamin’ and they kept beatin’ on her and finally she started prayin’ for ’em, and she asked God to have mercy on ’em, because they didn’t know what they were doing. And after then. . . . I heard some real keen screams, and that’s when they passed my cell with a girl, she was fifteen years old, Miss Johnson, June Johnson. They passed my cell and the blood was run-nin’ down in her face.

Fannie Lou Hamer. Image via eji.org.

Charles Payne, in I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, describes what then happened to Mrs. Hamer: 

When Mrs. Hamer’s turn came, the guards, perhaps tired by this time, had her lie face down on a bunk and ordered two Black prisoners to beat her with a studded leather strap until she couldn’t get up.

Has anyone bothered to ask the men and women forced to live in the wake of the beating of John Lewis, the lynching of Emmett Till, the firebombing of Percy Julian’s home, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers if they believe American history should give comfort to “whites?” 

Here’s an entire wall of pictures of white Americans grinning back at us in lynching photos while singing, “Shall We Gather at the River,” listening to sermons, and then watching the lynching. They look like those salt-of-the-earth Americans whom we lionize in our culture and politics because they are. The new generation is just “carrying on an old family tradition.” 

Learning from a Tragic History of Repression

The history of the Civil Rights movement still teaches us about living in the present. The descendants of the white men who beat, tortured, arrested, and murdered African Americans protesting for freedom now carry on that tragic family tradition by inventing new ways to restrict the right to vote.  

A tan-colored map of the Southern states of America with orange dots of varying sizes detailing the number of lynchings in the South. Philips County, Arkansas, is highlighted with the densest amount of orange dots, stating that 237 people were lynched in 1919 during the Elaine race riot.
Map of lynchings. Via nytimes.com.

As James Baldwin noted, 

To accept one’s past—one’s history—is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it. An invented past can never be used; it cracks and crumbles under the pressures of life like clay in a season of drought.

Giving young people a history that they can use doesn’t require any bending of the record. Quite the contrary. The more precisely and complexly we can render the history, the longer it will be useful.

And this history will not judge kindly Gov. DeSantis and the other arrogant, brazen public officials who – like Gov. Wallace in the schoolhouse door –are continuing the tradition of seeking to restrict the rights of African Americans.