The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Georgia’s voter suppression laws betray the promise of Reconstruction

Voting is the right that underpins all others

A voting rights demonstration outside the Michigan Capitol in Lansing. In Georgia, faith leaders are asking corporate executives to condemn laws restricting voting access or face a boycott. (Matthew Dae Smith/AP)

In a recent interview, Georgia’s Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan (R) blamed his state’s new voting rights restrictions on the shadow cast by former president Donald Trump and his acolyte Rudolph W. Giuliani. Their false claims of election fraud, he said, spread misinformation and created the momentum for the restrictions that became law. Duncan may be correct about the precipitating cause, but Georgia has a longer history of suppressing access to the ballot. And this history reveals a fundamental truth. The new election laws were created almost exclusively by White people with a calculated design to deprive Black Georgians of their fundamental right of citizenship: the vote.

No one can help us to understand the stakes of the debate over voting rights in Georgia better than the great civil rights leader Frederick Douglass.

For Douglass, the Civil War was fought not only to end slavery, but also, as he regularly declared, to ensure that Black people have “equal rights before the law.” In the wake of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of January 1863, Douglass increasingly focused on Black people’s right to vote. His best known Civil War speech, “The Mission of the War,” maintained that the successful outcome of the war would “invest the black man everywhere with the right to vote and be voted for.”

In a nation in which Black men were denied the vote in most states, even in the North, Midwest and West, this was a radical agenda. In fact, after the Civil War, Lincoln had declared that only selected Black people — “the very intelligent” and those who served in the Union Army — should be allowed to vote. His reactionary successor, Andrew Johnson, also initially said he could support some forms of limited Black suffrage.

But increasingly Johnson sought to suppress the Black vote — and Douglass pushed back. At a White House meeting with Johnson in February 1866, Douglass demanded that the president place “in our hand the ballot with which to save ourselves.” Johnson remained resistant, so Douglass urged the Radical Republicans in Congress to use legislation to ensure that right. To some extent he was pleased with the Republicans’ creation of the 14th Amendment, which brought citizenship to African Americans, but he was angered that the amendment left the matter of voting to the individual states. In an essay published in the 1867 Atlantic Monthly, Douglass excoriated the Republicans, calling the 14th Amendment an “unfortunate blunder” that sustained “an emasculated citizenship” for African Americans. True Reconstruction, he said, could not occur without the empowerment of Black people through “the elective franchise.”

Douglass’s efforts and those of other African American activists paid off with the ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870, which prohibited the federal government and each state from denying or abridging citizens’ right to vote based on their “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Douglass hailed the amendment’s ratification, and proclaimed: “The black man is free, the black man is a citizen, the black man is enfranchised, and this by the organic law of the land.”

But he soon realized that the new law would not necessarily be enforced. Throughout the country and especially in the Deep South, vigilantes and government officials attempted to suppress the Black vote. Nowhere was that truer than in Georgia.

Indeed, beginning in 1870, Georgia undertook what historian Eric Foner calls “the most comprehensive effort to undo Reconstruction.” The white-supremacist Democratic Party took control of the state legislature and over the next few years instituted poll taxes, which most Black Americans were unable to pay, and bogus residency requirements. Along with these new formal barriers to voting, Black people in Georgia during the 1870s and 1880s (and beyond) confronted violence whenever they went to polling places, to the point where it was safer simply to stay home.

Douglass watched these developments with anger. In an 1872 speech, he warned that “Georgia provides an example of the potential for the circumvention of the Constitution” through a $10 poll tax that kept most Black men from voting. Douglass’s anger spawned resistance. Addressing a National Colored Convention meeting in the early 1880s, he denounced the intimidation tactics of White people in Georgia and the other ex-Confederate states that, on Election Day, engaged in “Kukluxing,” along with “fraudulent counts, tissue ballots, and the like devices.” Douglass urged Black men to do whatever they could to lay claim to the ballot, and he continued to hold out hope for productive change. White reactionaries “may rob the negro of his vote to-day,” he said in 1889, “but the negro will have his vote to-morrow.”

And yet, terroristic intimidation from the Ku Klux Klan and other extralegal White organizations continued throughout the 19th and into the 20th century. A recent study by the Equal Justice Initiative showed that the number of known lynchings of Black people in Georgia from 1877 to 1950 — 589 — ranked second only to Mississippi, which saw 654 known lynchings during the same period. Political leaders such as Eugene Talmadge, who served three terms as governor, and Richard Russell, who served one term as governor and nearly 40 years as a senator, made sure that white supremacy ruled the state into the mid-20th century.

For good reason, the civil rights movement of the 1960s focused a good deal of attention on Georgia. In 1961-1962, a broad coalition of civil rights groups led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference challenged segregationist practices in Albany, Ga., including restrictions on Black voting. Dubbed the Albany Movement, it helped to inspire the NAACP-led protests in Savannah, Ga., just a year later that successfully brought about some desegregation in schools. Still, even after passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, the staunch segregationist Lester Maddox did everything he could to suppress the Black vote in Georgia during his 1967-1971 term as governor.

It is this history of Black voter suppression that today’s Georgia Republicans have embraced. Given Georgia’s long history of intimidation, many African Americans have traditionally voted as a group after Sunday church services. Counties now have the right to ban Sunday voting. There are stricter ID laws, which inevitably lead to unfriendly interrogations, and a ban on outsiders giving drinking water to voters, which will lead to harassment — what happens, say, when a Black man offers water to a daughter standing in a long line under a hot sun?

Most insidiously, there is a hotline empowering citizens to watch over “fraud,” which in the context of White Republicans’ belief in Trump’s falsehoods encourages Whites to watch over Black voters. Tips can be called in anonymously and will be followed up by agents of the state. The overall effect is to cast an aura of suspicion and even criminality over voting while Black.

Now is when we need the words of Douglass once again. In his great 1894 anti-lynching speech, “Lessons of the Hour,” Douglass offered lessons for his and our hour. Speaking more than two decades before women had the right to vote, he underscored the connections between suffrage and democracy: “I would not make suffrage more exclusive, but more inclusive. I would not have it embrace merely the elite, but would include the lowly. I would not only include the men, I would gladly include the women, and make our government in reality as in name a government of the people of the whole people.” David W. Blight, Douglass’s most recent biographer, terms him a “prophet.” A wise nation listens to its prophets.