Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Monday, January 18, 2021

MLK Day 2021

This year, for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, it seems most appropriate to focus on voting rights. I've featured this passage before; "Bourbon interests" refers to white, Southern conservatives, mostly Democrats, who wanted to keep social and economic control. In an 1965 speech, titled "Our God is Marching On!" but often known as "How Long, Not Long," Martin Luther King, Jr., observed:

Our whole campaign in Alabama has been centered around the right to vote. In focusing the attention of the nation and the world today on the flagrant denial of the right to vote, we are exposing the very origin, the root cause, of racial segregation in the Southland. Racial segregation as a way of life did not come about as a natural result of hatred between the races immediately after the Civil War. There were no laws segregating the races then. And as the noted historian, C. Vann Woodward, in his book, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, clearly points out, the segregation of the races was really a political stratagem employed by the emerging Bourbon interests in the South to keep the southern masses divided and southern labor the cheapest in the land. You see, it was a simple thing to keep the poor white masses working for near-starvation wages in the years that followed the Civil War. Why, if the poor white plantation or mill worker became dissatisfied with his low wages, the plantation or mill owner would merely threaten to fire him and hire former Negro slaves and pay him even less. Thus, the southern wage level was kept almost unbearably low.

Toward the end of the Reconstruction era, something very significant happened. That is what was known as the Populist Movement. The leaders of this movement began awakening the poor white masses and the former Negro slaves to the fact that they were being fleeced by the emerging Bourbon interests. Not only that, but they began uniting the Negro and white masses into a voting bloc that threatened to drive the Bourbon interests from the command posts of political power in the South.

To meet this threat, the southern aristocracy began immediately to engineer this development of a segregated society. I want you to follow me through here because this is very important to see the roots of racism and the denial of the right to vote. Through their control of mass media, they revised the doctrine of white supremacy. They saturated the thinking of the poor white masses with it, thus clouding their minds to the real issue involved in the Populist Movement. They then directed the placement on the books of the South of laws that made it a crime for Negroes and whites to come together as equals at any level. And that did it. That crippled and eventually destroyed the Populist Movement of the nineteenth century.

If it may be said of the slavery era that the white man took the world and gave the Negro Jesus, then it may be said of the Reconstruction era that the southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow. He gave him Jim Crow. And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man. And he ate Jim Crow. And when his undernourished children cried out for the necessities that his low wages could not provide, he showed them the Jim Crow signs on the buses and in the stores, on the streets and in the public buildings. And his children, too, learned to feed upon Jim Crow, their last outpost of psychological oblivion.

Thus, the threat of the free exercise of the ballot by the Negro and the white masses resulted in the establishment of a segregated society. They segregated southern money from the poor whites; they segregated southern mores from the rich whites; they segregated southern churches from Christianity; they segregated southern minds from honest thinking; and they segregated the Negro from everything. That’s what happened when the Negro and white masses of the South threatened to unite and build a great society: a society of justice where none would pray upon the weakness of others; a society of plenty where greed and poverty would be done away; a society of brotherhood where every man would respect the dignity and worth of human personality.

I particularly like this passage because King sharply intertwines race with class, and links it to the right to vote. And voting rights have been a prominent issue the past few years in King's home state of Georgia. In 2018, Stacey Abrams, a black Democrat, ran for governor and narrowly lost to Brian Kemp, a white Republican. Kemp was Secretary of State at the time, meaning he controlled the voting rolls and was partially refereeing a contest he was competing in. Politifact states that there's no proof of voter suppression in the 2018 race, but as NPR reported in 2020:

In 2018, while Abrams was running for governor against then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp, she showed up to her polling place and was told she couldn't cast a ballot, because, according to their records, she already had voted.

"I told them I would have recalled that," Abrams told NPR's Weekend Edition. "And we were luckily able to solve the problem, but I know I'm not the only person who faced that challenge."

Between 2016 and 2018, at least 17 million voters were purged from the voter rolls, according to a study by the Brennan Center for Justice. In just one month alone — July 2017 — more than half a million voters were removed from Georgia's voter rolls, many because they didn't vote in previous elections, according to an investigation from APM Reports, Reveal and NPR member station WABE.

"We have to understand that purging does not simply occur because someone has died or has moved out of the state," Abrams said, adding that then-Secretary of State Kemp purged hundreds of thousands of voters from the rolls. "The use of this purging led to a disproportionate number of communities of color being disenfranchised. And many didn't know they were purged until they showed up to vote."

The specific race is less important than the ongoing trend of a significant faction of conservatives working to suppress the vote. As a November 2020 post revisited:

In 1980, Paul Weyrich, who co-founded the right-wing Heritage Foundation, the so-called Moral Majority and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), told his fellow conservatives, "I don't want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people, they never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down."

The good news is that Stacey Abrams and other liberal-leaning political activists worked hard the past few years to register Georgia voters, particularly African-Americans. That work helped Joe Biden win Georgia in the presidential race, the first Democrat to do so since Bill Clinton in 1992. And Georgia wound up electing two Democratic senators in run-off elections, Jon Ossoff, who is "the first Jew since 1974 to win statewide national office in the South" and Raphael Warnock, Georgia's first black senator, only the second black Southern senator since reconstruction, and "the first Black Democratic senator from the South in the nation’s history." And in a neat connection, Warnock has been the pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was co-pastor.

Ossoff and Warnock's wins represent significant social progress. Their opponents, Republicans Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, reeked of corruption, but still almost won. Although the Democratic Party has its issues, the Republican Party has been almost entirely plutocratic and corrupt for a long time now. Ossoff and Warnock both ran on helping their fellow Georgians, and were able break through some of the repressive and divisive dynamics King described back in 1965 and which were still partially at play in the recent Georgia elections. It would be a mistake not to keep working on voter registration and voting rights restoration for the 2022 midterms and for the longer term. But the elections in Georgia represent a significant victory and are worth celebrating on MLK Day.

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