I must have been asleep because I had no idea that so many schemes were being hatched -- yet again -- to keep African Americans from voting. Here I was, thinking -- or dreaming -- that if ever there was a year for the United States to showcase democracy in action, this was it.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, with commemoration of the 1965 Voting Rights Act just around the corner. This is the 40th anniversary of the sacrifices made by James E. Cheney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who were murdered in Philadelphia, Miss., in 1964, for helping black people exercise their right to vote. And it is the 40th anniversary of the victory by residents of the nation's capital for the right to vote in a presidential election.
I'd imagined that this would be a time for honoring our martyrs and celebrating the progress they helped bring about. Instead, I have been awakened to the reality of a backward drift into a century gone by, when suppressing the black vote was all the rage.
Republicans appear to be back to their notorious black-voter intimidation tactics, which were exposed and condemned by the courts in the 1980s. Meanwhile, the IRS is threatening to revoke the NAACP's tax-exempt status and has targeted the nation's oldest civil rights organization for an audit for criticizing Bush administration policies.
After the fiasco in Florida four years ago, election reforms were proposed and promises made that the next presidential election would be different. Who'd have thought that meant things would get worse?
George W. Bush had been named president with the help of a U.S. Supreme Court that his father, former president George H.W. Bush, helped to shape. In the aftermath of 9/11, the selected one took the nation to war -- citing first one reason, then changing to another and still another before coming up with the latest one: to show the world the wonders of democracy.
One certainly has to wonder about the model on display.
"For example, in recent days, Wisconsin Republicans have announced plans to initiate 'background' checks on newly registered voters," said Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Council on Civil Rights, at a news conference Thursday in front of the Republican National Committee's headquarters in Washington. "This is an intimidation technique, designed to induce fear on the part of newly registered voters, particularly in minority communities."
The situation is just as bad in other battleground states, such as Florida, Ohio and Colorado.
After the LCCR news conference, two Republican National Committee staff members -- both young African Americans -- were sent out to issue a rebuttal. Their efforts got off to a bad start, however, when one of them made what might be called a Freudian slip by introducing the other as "director of voter suppression." The spokesmen tried to recover, contending that their party poll-watchers were only going to weed out ineligible voters; not intimidate others.
As an example, one of them cited registered voters whose addresses had been tracked back to hotels and vacant lots. A woman in a wheelchair shot back, saying she lives in a single-occupancy hotel room and that many homeless people do, too, as well as in church basements and vacant lots.
"Since when does being poor mean losing your right to vote?" she asked.
Even the young Republicans had to wonder about that.
The LCCR, which is the nation's largest civil rights coalition, has spent years urging Congress and President Bush to institute serious election reforms. In November 2001, with the nation still reeling from 9/11, Henderson told a news conference that national security went beyond protecting America from terrorist attacks.
"Protecting democracy from the corrosive effect of a vote improperly denied is another important element of our homeland defense, and it is no less urgent simply because its impact is less visible," he said.
Of course, it's all too obvious now. So, wake up. Stand up. Grab some proper ID and head to your polling place Tuesday. (Go to www.mypollingplace.com to find out where it is.) Upon arrival, steer clear of those tricky provisional ballots, if at all possible, and join the legions of African American voters who won't be turned around.