The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Black WWII veteran voted in Georgia in 1946. He was lynched for it.

Maceo Snipes was shot on his front porch, a new documentary on voter suppression remembers.

Maceo Snipes in his World War II uniform. (Hank Klibanoff/Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project at Emory)

To Maceo Snipes, the future must have looked brighter than it ever had. He had served honorably in World War II. Now home in Taylor County, Ga., he was working hard to bring the family farm back from the brink. He hadn’t made it far in school, but he knew the power of education and rewarded his nieces when they got good grades.

Plus, a federal court had just decided White officials in his county couldn’t stop Black people from voting in the Democratic primary.

“When you have fought fascists, and you have fought for democracy, you want some of that democracy for yourself,” says historian Carol Anderson in the new documentary “All In: The Fight for Democracy.

While the documentary focuses on Stacey Abrams’s 2018 Georgia gubernatorial run, filmmakers Liz Garbus and Lisa Cortés weave in the history of voter suppression in the United States, including the chilling story of what happened to Snipes.

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Snipes had been warned, Anderson says, “something to the effect of ‘First Negro that votes, that’ll be the last thing he ever does.’ ” But he cast his ballot on July 17, 1946 — the only Black person to do so in Taylor County.

For a day or two, nothing happened. Then one night, as he and his mother were sitting down to dinner, a White man he knew knocked on the door and asked him to come outside.

“And then he sees three additional White men, and he hears ‘chk-chk.’ It was a firing squad. And they laid Maceo out,” says Anderson, who is the author of “One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy.” “The message was really clear: You vote, you die.”

After being shot in the abdomen, his mother helped him walk miles to get a ride to the hospital, family members later told the Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project at Emory University. There he waited for six hours before he was seen in a room not much bigger than a closet.

Doctors were able to remove the bullets, but without a blood transfusion he would die, they told him, and it just so happened the hospital was out of “Black blood.” In the Jim Crow South, even blood was segregated.

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Snipes died on July 20. He was 37.

Cassandra Jones-Deshazier never met her step-grandfather, but she has a plaque and a photo of him hanging in her living room in Macon, Ga. Snipes had been married to her grandmother Nezzie and took in Jones-Deshazier’s mother as his stepdaughter.

Snipes was still married to Nezzie, according to military records, when he was drafted into the Army in 1943, though the couple split up some time before his death; Jones-Deshazier isn’t sure when. He spent more than two years in the Pacific and was honorably discharged. He had been home for less than a year when he had decided to vote.

“My grandmother told me that during the time after he died, they had heard around that if anyone showed up at his funeral, that they would be killed also,” Jones-Deshazier told The Washington Post in a phone interview. Only Maceo’s ex-wife, stepdaughter and “three or four others” attended “because everybody else was scared.”

His nieces told Emory University he was buried in the town cemetery under cover of darkness in an unmarked grave. No one knows exactly where. Within days, the family moved to Ohio.

“People scattered out of Taylor County quick, just moved away,” Jones-Deshazier said.

Before he died, Snipes told police exactly who had lured him out onto the porch that night — a fellow World War II veteran named Edward Williamson. A coroner’s jury was convened, and Snipes’s mother bravely testified, but a headline in The Washington Post a week later says it all: “Jury Calls Slaying of Negro Veteran ‘Self-Defense.’ ” No charges were ever filed against the men who killed Snipes.

Cases like this one are what motivated the Black community to push for civil rights and the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, Anderson says in the documentary.

In fact, Abrams could be counted among those motivated by the Snipes lynching. “It’s one of those stories about oppression and about Jim Crow that those of us who focus on these issues, especially in this region, you learn about early,” she told The Washington Post in a Zoom interview.

In the aftermath of the 2018 election, young people who had worked on her campaign were despondent. “There was this chatter about whether all was lost,” she said. “And what became so very obvious was they grew up under the protection of the Voting Rights Act, so they never conceived of how real this could be.”

In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down key portions of the Voting Rights Act that had prevented states like Georgia from making changes to its voting laws without federal approval. Since then, the state has instituted a strict voter-ID law, closed polling places and purged voters from the rolls. Abram’s opponent in the governor’s race, then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp, was also in charge of administering the election.

“My goal was to tell the history of voter suppression so we could understand it in the current context,” Abrams said.

There’s an important coda to the story of Maceo Snipes. His murder, and the lynchings of others in Georgia the next week, got the attention of a 17-year-old student at Morehouse College in Atlanta. The young man was moved enough to write a letter to the editor published in the Atlanta Constitution on Aug. 6, 1946.

“We want and are entitled to the basic rights and opportunities of American citizens,” Martin Luther King Jr. wrote. “Equal opportunities in education, health, recreation, and similar public services; the right to vote; equality before the law; some of the same courtesy and manners that we ourselves bring to all human relations.”

Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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