American Democracy Is Only 55 Years Old—And Hanging by a ThreadHistorians in the News
tags: African American history, John Roberts, Mississippi, Voting Rights Act, voting rights, 1960s, Shelby County v. Holder, black power, Charles Hamilton
in 1966, James Meredith, the man who a few years earlier had integrated the University of Mississippi, was shot and wounded by a sniper as he undertook a personal protest march from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson. One of Meredith’s goals had been to urge Black Mississippians to register to vote. The big civil-rights organizations decided to pick up the torch, turning a one-man statement into a massive, three-week operation. More than a week into the march, there was a nighttime rally in Greenwood. The chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, 24-year-old Stokely Carmichael (known later as Kwame Ture), addressed the crowd: “We want Black power!” The crowd said back, according to The New York Times: “Black power!” A new phase in the Black civil-rights movement had begun.
Among those at the rally was Charles V. Hamilton, a lawyer and an academic who served as an unofficial adviser to SNCC. In 1967, Hamilton and Carmichael published the book Black Power, which sought to diagnose the contagion of American racism and crystallize a new, radical Black consciousness. Hamilton’s interest in the constitutional underpinnings of American white supremacy pulled his and Carmichael’s work toward a study of the history of voting rights. In the book, Hamilton and Carmichael argued that gaining access to the ballot box was the first step in ending “centuries of fear” and achieving “political modernization.” To paraphrase the historian David Garrow, Black Power illustrated that voting was not only instrumental, or useful to effect change, but also consummative, or radically self-affirming.
I spoke with Hamilton several times this summer, sometimes calling him from outside my mother’s hospital room. He spent the past 45 years as a professor at Columbia University, continuing to track Black political power in America but also keeping an eye on international freedom movements, especially in South Africa. He is in his early 90s, retired, and living in an assisted-care facility in Manhattan. On days when he felt up to it, attendants or friends would wheel him outside with his iPhone, to a place under some trees, and he and I would talk. He has good days for talking and not-so-good days for talking, but especially on the subject of voting rights and elections, he’s still clear and fierce.
“We need to change the Constitution,” he told me during our initial conversation. The first thing Hamilton thinks Democrats should do is push for an overhaul of the election system, making voting easier while at the same time reforming or replacing the Electoral College. He believes that the Constitution, the nation’s foundational document, has to be revised so it can play a more active role in securing and protecting the right to vote. When I asked why he favors the arduous—and likely impossible, under current partisan circumstances—process of amending the Constitution instead of just passing legislation, his answer was short:
“That’s the only way to ensure it.”
“Ensure what?” I asked.
“Posterity,” he responded.
It was fitting that a constitutional scholar should evoke the preamble—with its language about securing “the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” But, in notes and unpublished essays written over the past two years that he shared with me, it’s clear that “posterity” for Hamilton is also somewhat subversive. The Founders were not uniform in their views, but the document they created did not propose anything like universal suffrage, and it embodied skepticism, if not fear, of an active, powerful federal government. To Hamilton, “posterity” would give Black Americans a claim to changes that challenge the Founders’ conception of limited government and individual liberty. In his writings, he stresses his belief that a strong, interventionist national government is the only kind capable of protecting Black civil rights. Even a Voting Rights Act at full strength is not strong enough, Hamilton would argue. And it is certainly not at full strength now.