If It’s Not Jim Crow, What Is It?Historians in the News
tags: Jim Crow, African American history, Georgia, voting rights, Disenfranchisment
The laws that disenfranchised Black Americans in the South and established Jim Crow did not actually say they were disenfranchising Black Americans and creating a one-party racist state.
I raise this because of a debate among politicians and partisans on whether Georgia’s new election law — rushed through last month by the state’s Republican legislature and signed by Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican — is a throwback to the Jim Crow restrictions of the 20th century.
Democrats say yes. “This is Jim Crow in the 21st century. It must end,” President Biden said in a statement. Republicans and conservative media personalities say no. “You know what voter suppression is?” Ben Shapiro said on his very popular podcast. “Voter suppression is when you don’t get to vote.”
The problem with the “no” argument here is that it mistakes both the nature and the operation of Jim Crow voting laws. There was no statute that said, “Black people cannot vote.” Instead, Southern lawmakers spun a web of restrictions and regulations meant to catch most Blacks (as well as many whites) and keep them out of the electorate. It is true that the “yes” argument of President Biden and other Democrats overstates similarities and greatly understates key differences — chief among them the violence that undergirded the Jim Crow racial order. But the “no” argument of conservatives and Republicans asks us to ignore context and extend good faith to lawmakers who overhauled their state’s election laws because their party lost an election.
Southern lawmakers at the turn of the 20th century weren’t shy about their motives — “Whenever there were political questions involved, of course, we looked to the interests of the party, because they are the interests of the State,” one Democratic delegate to the 1898 Louisiana constitutional convention, which sharply restricted the franchise, said at the time — but their laws had to be more circumspect. “Those who sought to prune the Southern electorate were hampered by various constitutional restrictions,” the historian J. Morgan Kousser explained in his 1974 book, “The Shaping of Southern Politics: Suffrage Restriction and the Establishment of the One-Party South, 1880-1910.”
Between the 15th Amendment, which prohibited overt discrimination on the basis of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” and the 14th Amendment, which allowed Congress to slash the representation of states that disenfranchised adult males for any reason other than crime or rebellion, Southern lawmakers could not just write Black voters out of the electorate. “The disenfranchisers were forced to contrive devious means to accomplish their purposes,” Kousser writes.
According to Kousser, the first wave of suffrage restriction after Reconstruction relied primarily on laws and practices that “decreased the influence of opposition voters but did not actually prohibit them from exercising the franchise.” Some states, for example, took the right to name their local officials away from voters and granted it to governors and state legislatures, a practice that “guaranteed that white Democrats would rule even in Republican areas.”
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