What Jim Crow looks like in 2021Roundup
tags: Georgia, voting rights, Voter Suppression
Nicole Hemmer is an associate research scholar at Columbia University with the Obama Presidency Oral History Project and the author of Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics. She co-hosts the history podcasts Past Present and This Day in Esoteric Political History and is co-producer of the new podcast Welcome To Your Fantasy.
"It's a redux of Jim Crow in a suit and tie." That's how Stacey Abrams, who spearheaded efforts to organize Black voters in Georgia for the 2020 election, recently described the deluge of new voter restriction laws proposed by Republicans in the Georgia state legislature in the wake of their defeat. Cliff Albright of the Black Voters Matter Fund echoed Abrams, saying the new restrictions, which include new ID requirements and limits on drop boxes, are just "putting a little makeup and cologne on Jim Crow."
The idea that these new voting restrictions are a more sanitized version of Jim Crow says a lot about popular understanding of that era of racism and discrimination (something Abrams and Albright clearly know, and are speaking to). Next to images of White protesters snarling at civil rights activists at sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960 or police officers siccing German Shepherds on Black schoolchildren in Birmingham, Alabama. In 1963, the image of legislators calmly enacting a series of discriminatory restrictions seems far more civilized.
Yet, even at its violent peak, Jim Crow had another side, one that always wore a suit and tie, especially when it came to voter disenfranchisement. Required to navigate around the 15th Amendment, which explicitly prohibited barring Black men from voting, White Southern legislators innovated a kind of colorblind racism that would go on to become the right's preferred tool for opposing civil rights advances in the post-Jim Crow era. Looked at through that lens, the current rush to restrict voting rights is less proof of the resuscitation of Jim Crow than evidence that it never really went away.
Jim Crow, a name derived from racist minstrel shows that would come to stand in for the entire segregationist regime of the South, emerged in the late 19th century as a series of anti-Black laws: laws that stripped Black men of the right to vote, segregated public spaces, barred Black people from certain types of jobs.
Disenfranchisement, which came first and helped make the rest possible, was neither an easy nor a nonviolent process. It involved paramilitary violence against Black and Republican voters, mass voter fraud, and, in places like Wilmington, North Carolina, an outright White supremacist coup against the sitting government. Only after White Democrats wrested power away from Reconstruction state governments in the 1870s and 1880s were they able to institute laws that stripped Black people of the right to vote.
Redemption governments, as these new White supremacist legislatures were known, instituted laws that were, on their face, racially neutral, even though their intent and effect were to disenfranchise Black voters. Poll taxes and literacy tests backed by discriminatory voter registrars did most of the work.
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