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Image from the Selma Movie trailer

By David Gellman

The film Selma contributes to many important conversations—about racially biased policing, about whether to think of the Civil Rights movement as a bottom up or top down triumph, about liberties movies take with historical records, about whether Black filmmakers and actors receive the recognition and opportunities they deserve. At the center of Selma‘s story is voting—specifically the systematic denial of voting rights to African Americans and the brutal tactics to suppress those rights, decade after bloody decade, from Reconstruction to the height of the Civil Rights era. The timing of the film, 50 years after the landmark Voting Rights Act, heightens the attraction of a story that needs no round-numbered anniversary to command our attention. What activists in Selma and Martin Luther King achieved together represents a triumph of citizenship and self-worth over malevolent forces of racism and callous indifference. (For a superb recent historical reflection on Selma see http://www.teachingforchange.org/selma-bottom-up-history.) That story should be told over and over again from as many different angles as possible. But these events also beg broader historical questions which, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court, have gained intense importance for the current moment.

What drives the cycles of emancipation and voter suppression that has characterized U.S. history from American Revolution to the present? Why does Black freedom produce, sooner or later, the refocusing of the legislative agenda on alleged voter fraud? Why, at the same time that the Supreme Court ruled critical portions of the Voting Rights Act obsolete is our political system awash in the money of millionaires and billionaires with the aid of that same Supreme Court?

The connection between emancipation, talk of fraud, and voter suppression dates back to the early days of the Republic. When northern states instituted the process of gradually abolishing slavery in the 1780s, 1790s, and early 1800s, the question of whether free people of color should be allowed to vote and on what terms emerged. Indeed, in New York, the state with the most slaves north of Maryland, the process of freeing the children of slave mothers was delayed by over a decade in part because of racially motivated concerns raised about the prospect of Blacks voting and holding office. Twelve years after New York finally enacted its gradual emancipation law in 1799, the state passed an "Act to prevent frauds and perjuries at elections, and to prevent slaves from voting." In an era when states still tied access to the ballot directly to the ownership of property, partisan election officials enforced or ignored such requirements as suited their interests. But because free blacks in New York tended to vote for the Federalist Party, their opponents moved to make blackness a signifier of voter fraud by insisting that "whenever any black or mulatto person shall present himself to vote at any election in this state, he shall produce to the inspectors or persons conducting such election, a certificate of his freedom." The law imposed costs in time and money to obtain certification, compounded by the need to answer legal challenges to this paperwork. Today’s Voter I.D. laws, long lines, and provisional ballots have ignoble nineteenth century precedents. Worse soon came. New York’s 1821 state constitution, in advance of final abolition in 1827, instituted the very same property holding requirement for black male voters that it simultaneously eliminated for white male voters. The alleged desire to combat voter fraud and voter suppression served as tools to advance both a partisan agenda and to blunt the empowering effects of emancipation.

After the Civil War, the links between emancipation and talk of voter fraud and corruption ultimately diminished the impact of the mass emancipation of southern slaves. Even before the Fifteenth Amendment made it unconstitutional to prohibit citizens from voting on the basis of race or prior enslavement (the amendment said nothing about prohibitions base on sex), many people understood black enfranchisement as crucial to rebuilding the former Confederacy according to the nation’s avowed commitment to equality. As historian Eric Foner has documented, Blacks embraced the opportunity to vote, to join political organizations, and to hold office during Reconstruction. Freed people faced violent threats to their exercise of basic citizenship rights in the South. The Colfax Massacre of 1873, where as many as 165 African Americans died after defending a courthouse in the midst of a contested Louisiana election, is among the most dramatic examples.

Even as Reconstruction civil rights amendments and laws spread hope for positive change, some white northerners supporting Reconstruction simultaneously raised grave concerns about political corruption and voter fraud. Republicans in New York, the nation’s financial and cultural capital, railed against Democratic opponents for rallying immigrants, many of them not naturalized citizens, to the polls in order, the reformers said, to siphon off tax dollars for nefarious purposes. As historian David Quigley has highlighted, the Enforcement Act of 1870 meant to ensure that southern blacks wield the ballot also gave the federal government new authority over election fraud; the Naturalization Act passed by the same Congress also aimed to combat election irregularities. Over time, the discourse of corruption overwhelmed the discourse of democratic rights to the franchise. Northern will to protect the fragile interracial Reconstruction regimes eroded for many reasons, among them the sense that governmental corruption rampant in the North had also made interracial southern state governments unpalatable. While hardly the only reason the nation abandoned Reconstruction, African Americans paid a terrible price for the shifting emphasis from equal rights to an emphasis—at least in theory–on stamping out fraud and corruption.

Which brings us back to Selma and the Voting Rights Act. One might think of the Civil Rights revolution as the third wave of emancipation—northern gradual abolition and the wartime events that led to the Thirteenth Amendment being the first two. As the film indicates, preventing Blacks from voting was a firewall against the changes set in motion by African American activism, Brown v. Board, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The remarkable and laudable effect of the Voting Rights Act was to weave the protection of the Black franchise into this third emancipation. The repeated reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act and the enforcement apparatus of the Justice Department demonstrate that, by the standards of prior history, the federal government and the nation at large showed remarkable steadfastness for decades.

Current conditions warrant deep concern. Republican officials and others on the right have hammered away with charges of voter fraud and laws designed to make voting harder, with a disproportionate impact on citizens in minority communities. We are told by their proponents that Voter I.D. laws and the purging of voting rolls aim solely to prevent the integrity of the process. Meanwhile, in 2012 the Supreme Court in Shelby v. Holder struck down one of the most effective portions of the Voting Rights Act, the provision that jurisdictions with a previous history of voter suppression pre-clear changes in voting procedures with the Justice Department. Preventing jurisdictions from revising election laws in a discriminatory fashion will now be appreciably more difficult. Combined with the unlikelihood that Republicans in Congress will legislate to restore more aggressive enforcement, the Shelby decision indicates a disturbing weakening of national resolve to protect citizenship rights.

The Citizens United decision which rolled back regulations on political spending by corporations would seem to be another matter entirely. Yet the current age of profound wealth inequality and corporate influence in politics rightly draws comparisons to the final decades of the nineteenth century. The so-called Gilded Age also saw the systematic roll back of Black voting rights, ultimately with the Supreme Court’s approval.

We seem to have entered another era in which our national dialogue and our national priorities are badly misaligned. The rights of corporations and the most powerful among us are zealously guarded, while the majority opinion in Shelby dismisses threats to historically marginalized voters with assurances that racial conditions have changed too much to need careful vigilance. In the current model, the danger of fraud and abuse flows from individuals who merely wish to see government uphold one of the greatest legacies of the third emancipation; the corrupting influence on politics of massive inflows of money we are supposed to see as free speech integral to the election process. My claim is not that Jim Crow regimes will be resurrected or that voter fraud and political corruption should be tolerated, but rather that we must realistically appraise from which direction the greater threat to our egalitarian ideals flows. There are many potential lessons from Selma. Among these lessons, surely, is that the preservation and extension of voting rights constitutes an essential element of successful emancipation and a crucial measure of democracy’s march.

David N. Gellman is Professor of History at DePauw University. His books include: Emancipating New York: The Politics of Slavery and Freedom, 1777-1827 (LSU, 2006); Jim Crow New York: A Documentary History of Race and Citizenship, 1777-1877 (NYU Press, 2003) with David Quigley; and, with Timothy J. Shannon, American Odysseys: A History of Colonial North America (Oxford University Press, 2014). Gellman’s current book project is a multi-generational study of the Jay family and slavery.

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