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“Written With The Purpose Of Disenfranchising Blacks”: The State Where Racism Is Enshrined In The Constitution

As the presidential race heats up and the American public becomes consumed with the drama that will inevitably engulf the campaign, we should not forget that democracies are intended to be based on voter enfranchisement, and that in many ways America is still lacking in this regard.

There are many techniques that America could employ to increase voter turnout, but one of our most pressing obstacles is the states that have consistently worked toward disenfranchising large swaths of their electorate. In this election cycle, Alabama may be the most egregious offender. You probably think you know all the reasons for this, but here’s one reason I bet you don’t know: It’s all in the state’s constitution.

To put it mildly, Alabama’s constitution is an absurd document. It is the longest still-operative constitution in the world at more than 310,000 words long. It is 40 times longer than the U.S. Constitution and 12 times longer than the average state constitution. Alabama’s constitution is insanely long because it gives the state legislature the power to administer over most counties directly, and as a result about 90 percent of the constitution consists of nearly 900 amendments. Some of the amendments cover mundane issues such as salary increases for county officials or the regulation of bingo games in Macon and Greene counties. The U.S. Constitution, in comparison, has only 27 amendments.

Alabama’s constitution places the majority of the state’s political power in the hands of a small coterie of officials, leaving counties and municipalities forced to essentially ask permission from the legislature regarding almost any form of self-governing. Alabamans for a long time have railed against the inefficiencies and ridiculousness of this constitution. But the racial undertones and the fact that it disproportionately harms and disenfranchises persons of color should not be overlooked. In fact, it should be the focal point when attempting to understand the constitution that governs Alabama.

The document was ratified in 1901 following a wave of racial terror that engulfed the South after the Civil War and during Reconstruction. Essentially, the constitutions of most Southern states follow a similar pattern. Prior to 1861 they all had their own various constitutions, but at the start of the Civil War they created new constitutions pledging their allegiance to the Confederacy. Following the defeat of the Confederacy these constitutions were no longer valid, and starting in 1868 each state had a new constitution overseen by the federal government that outlawed slavery and ensured black Americans were able to vote, to seek and hold elected offices, and to participate in their governments at the local, state, and national level.

To put it mildly, white Southerners did not embrace this societal change, and rather quickly a wave of terror engulfed the South directed toward freed blacks and Northern carpetbaggers—many of whom were also black—who had moved to the region with the intention of ensuring that the new constitutions and federal regulations were followed. The first iteration of the Ku Klux Klan was formed during this period.

However, the terror inflicted upon blacks during this era was not merely physical and mental, but also political. In addition to the Klan and other terrorist groups such as the White League and the Red Shirts, a political movement called the Redeemers began to steadily grow in popularity in the South. The Redeemers were a white political coalition consisting of primarily conservative and pro-business politicians and leaders. Their political ideology focused on seeking “redemption” by ousting or oppressing the coalition of freedmen—freed persons of color, carpetbaggers, and scalawags (Southern whites who supported Reconstruction). The Redeemers wanted to return their America to an era that favored white life and oppressed all others.

The biggest coup of this era for the Redeemers was the controversial Compromise of 1877 that removed federal troops from South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana, decided the 1876 U.S. presidential election, and ended the era of Reconstruction. In the ensuing years, Southern states created constitutions that reversed the progress and enfranchisement of Reconstruction, but without explicitly violating the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution.

Jim Crow laws and segregation became legally mandated during this time, but due to the “separate but equal” doctrine, these policies were not viewed as racially unjust. Additionally, since race could no longer serve as a barrier to vote, wealth, education and more became the new determinants, and poll taxes were instituted in states across the South. Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia all created poll taxes in their new constitutions that disenfranchised blacks and poor whites. Poor whites had become the collateral damage in the quest to continue the oppression of black Americans in the South.

However, as time passed most of these states created new constitutions or completely rewrote existing ones so that they would not be trapped and forced to govern based upon the abhorrent and immortal standards of the past. Georgia, for example, ratified its current constitution in 1983.

Yet Alabama remains as one of the states whose constitution (PDF) functions as a continuation of the Redeemers ideology: an ideology that resulted in widespread political corruption as whites worked to sustain white supremacy and remain the governing force in Alabama by any means necessary. During the 1890s, whites in Alabama committed 177 lynchings—more than any other state—and by the end of the decade, Alabama had created a new constitution that placed the state under the control of those who committed and/or endorsed the terror.

During the first election held after the constitution’s 1901 enactment, voter turnout declined by 38 percent as a result of poll taxes, literacy requirements, and other legal voting impediments. In 1900 there were roughly 181,000 registered black voters and by 1903 there were fewer than 5,000. Black voter turnout dropped by a whopping 96 percent, and white turnout also decreased by 19 percent.

In recent years, when Alabama has instituted voter ID laws that disproportionately harm communities of color and have systematically closed DMVs in predominantly black counties, thus preventing African Americans from obtaining voter IDs, no one should be surprised. Alabama has always been a state that has found creative legal was to oppress and disenfranchise black Americans while ensuring that a segment of white elites dominate society.

Alabama’s constitution may not be legally racist or oppressive, but that most certainly is its intent. Preventing Alabamans from voting is its main bedrock principle. And while many Alabamans view their constitution as a shame that blights their society, the oppressive principles and ideology that brought it into existence have unfortunately returned to our national political discourse. Voting restrictions have sprung up across the nation, and government-sponsored racial and religious divisions are again commonplace in our political discourse.

Attempts to forcefully return America to a past that encourages racial division and oppression and places political power within the wealthy elites of society only result in staining the future. Alabama’s constitution and its capacity and consistency of racial oppression and disenfranchising voters is only one example, and sadly there are no signs that it will be repealed anytime soon.


By: Barrett Holmes Pitner, The Daily Beast, December 22, 2015

December 25, 2015 Posted by | Alabama Constitution, Alabama State Legislature, Racism, Voter Suppression | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“The South Shall Not Rise Again”: But, Beware When Right-Wing Manipulators Of Historical Memory Offer Reconciliation

Let’s not get carried away here, friends told me yesterday. A flag is just a symbol. When they stop passing voter-ID laws or start passing gun laws, then I’ll be impressed.

This is a sound view, no doubt about that. But if you don’t think symbols matter, think about how tenaciously people fight to hold on to them. And more than that: In terms of our political culture, the pending removal of the Confederate battle flag from South Carolina’s capitol grounds, and now Mississippi’s state flag—and, don’t forget, from WalMart’s shelves—represents a rare win for North over South since Reconstruction.

This is a history and set of facts that far too few Americans know, and it’s vitally important to understand it in order to grasp the full magnitude of this moment. The South, more than the North, has dominated and defined the limits of America’s political culture for most of the last 140-ish years. The North has the money, the North has Wall Street, and the North runs (most of) our high and popular culture. But the South has run our politics. And this moment that we’re witness to now could be the blessed beginning of the end of all that.

It all started during Reconstruction, when a debate ensued about how the Civil War would be remembered. Our guide through these waters is Yale historian David Blight, whose groundbreaking book Race and Reunion tells this story. He shows masterfully how collectively historical memory is constructed.

According to Blight, there were three competing interpretations of the war. The “emancipationist” one emphasized slavery as the cause of the war and the slaves’ freedom as its great moral accomplishment. The “reconciliationist” view emphasized the common hardships endured by soldiers and citizens who were after all countrymen. There was also a white supremacist version that marginalized the role of slavery as a cause of the conflict (sound familiar?), but the main interpretive battle was between the first two.

It’s a long a complex and quite revolting story about this country we love, and you should read the book. But the gist of it is that in the interest of national reconciliation, the North—where, let’s face it, there was also no shortage of racists in the late 1800s—capitulated to a view of the war with which the South could be comfortable, as a battle that fully and finally unified a country that never really had been.

Gettysburg became organized basically around Pickett’s Charge, the last thrust of the Lost Cause. By the time of Woodrow Wilson—the first Southern-born president since Andrew Johnson had taken over from the slain Lincoln, and a militant segregationist—there was a 50-year commemoration of that battle attended by 50,000 veterans, not one of them black.

Meanwhile, historical memory was morphing into political reality. In Congress, the United States entered the era of the Southern committee barons whose influence on the making of national policy was obscenely out of proportion to either their numbers or the extent to which their views, particularly on race, reflected broader American sentiment. Accruing seniority and working the rules, Southerners (and yes, conservatives, they were all Democrats then; so what?) gained power. By Franklin Roosevelt’s time, of the House’s 10 most important committees, Southerners chaired nine. As for the Senate, all you need to know is this sentence, penned by the journalist William S. White in 1957: “The Senate might be described without too much violence to fact as the South’s unending revenge upon the North for Gettysburg.”

The Southerners used that power to one end far above all others: keep black people down. But then, starting in 1958, the Senate began to elect some liberals; and outside the halls of power, which is where change actually happens, a certain young charismatic minister was changing white minds and opening white hearts across the country, even a few in the South.

Next came the only years, roughly 1964 to sometime in the mid-1970s, depending on how you measure it, that the North vanquished the South politically since the Civil War. Many chairmanships changed hands; the racists were defeated and changed political parties; accommodation of the South was no longer something most Northerners and Westerners were interested in.

So that was all good, but that of course doesn’t end our story. The South, through the person of Californian Ronald Reagan, who gave a high-profile speech invoking “states’ rights” in the very town where erstwhile states’ righters had murdered Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney in 1964, came roaring back. The Christian Coalition became a force. From 1980 until 2008, the Democrats did manage to win two presidential elections, but only because they put forward an all-Southern ticket that talked more about “family values” than most Democrats would have really preferred, even if they did understand the political reality.

Just as Blight observed a post-Civil War era that saw two world views, one fundamentally progressive and the other fundamentally reactionary, competing to interpret the past and thereby define the future, I argue that we’ve been living through something very similar since 1980. And just like the emancipationists and reconciliationists, we’re stuck in the ’60s: They were quarreling about the 1860s, we about the 1960s. And in our political culture for most of the past 35 years, the modern-day version of the reconciliationists has won.

But now that’s changing. Fortunately, the emancipationists control the culture from New York and Hollywood, and they’ve pushed back on the Southerners hard—this too is a huge change from the old days, when for example television networks were extremely careful not to offend Southern tastes. And so even the Southern Baptist Convention has quieted down about same-sex marriage, even if the Republican candidates haven’t.

But this—this flag business is the first instance I can recall of conservative Republican Southern politicians defying their right-wing base on an issue of first-order emotional importance. It’s important that this isn’t some liberal federal judge ordering the flag removed. It’s Republican politicians doing it. I’m not saying that to pat them on the back—they’re at least a decade late to be getting anything resembling credit as far as I’m concerned. I’m just observing it as telling: When future David Blights write about how the South started losing its hold on America’s political culture in 2015, they’ll write about this moment, the first time their leaders said to them, “Your position is just too morally undignified for me to defend anymore.”

For his part, the actual living David Blight isn’t as hopeful about this as I am. In response to my question, he emailed me yesterday: “This may indeed be a rare moment. But if my work shows anything it might be simply to say beware when right-wing manipulators of historical memory offer reconciliation. They are looking for cover for other and perhaps larger matters.”

He’s correct, of course. This massacre is still about guns and terrorism, and it’s about South Carolina’s voter-ID laws too, on which Clementa Pinckney was one of just two favorable votes in the state Senate. All those fights will continue, with the usual achingly slow progress (if progress at all on guns).

But this is still a big deal. It could usher in a second era of conquest over Southern political hegemony. If that happens, those other fights will be easier to win, eventually, too.


By: Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast, June 24, 2015

June 25, 2015 Posted by | Confederate Flag, Deep South, South Carolina | , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Striking And Ominous”: Bourbon Democrats On The Rise Again

The parallels between today’s conservative-dominated Republican Party and southern “Bourbon” Democrats in the post-Civil War era are striking and ominous.

The Bourbons — as conservative Democrats in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were known — were prosperous property owners in the South who set out to end Reconstruction and bring back the good old days of domination by upper-class whites. The Post’s Charles Lane alluded to them in his April 17 column, “A ‘white man’s party’?

Historian Harvey H. Jackson III captured the objectives of the Bourbons in a 2004 article:

“Among their many goals was to keep Bourbon money in Bourbon pockets. They limited the state’s taxing power, abolished boards and offices (including the board of education), allowed the state debt to be settled in ways not fully understood today, and prohibited state support for projects such as river improvement and railroad construction.” Any of that sound familiar?

“The Bourbon [Democratic-written] constitution of 1875 was a victory for prosperous . . . Alabamians who did not want to pay taxes to improve the lives of those less fortunate than themselves and who did not want to finance commercial development that did not benefit them directly.” What contemporary political party comes to mind?

The Encyclopedia of Alabama, developed by the Alabama Humanities Foundation and Auburn University, puts it that “low taxes (particularly on property), weak government, and white supremacy — the core concerns of the Bourbons — became of the law of the land.”

The term Bourbon was most likely associated with the reactionary Bourbon Dynasty of France that attempted to undo the effects of the French Revolution. “In Alabama and the South,” the encyclopedia says, “Bourbon Democrats worked to undo what was done by the Civil War and Reconstruction.”

Conservative Republicans undoubtedly will take umbrage at any suggestion they belong in the same camp as post-Civil War conservative Democrats who proudly favored white supremacy and life before Appomattox.

So, let’s see. Are today’s conservatives big champions of states’ rights, a smaller and weaker federal government, less taxes, and more individual liberty? Yes, they will agree. But those goals, they would insist, are not racial in nature; they reflect a philosophy and set of values.

Yet even House Republican leader Eric Cantor acknowledges the existence of a “darker side” in this country. Asked this week by Politico’s Mike Allen if he has felt anti-Semitism from his GOP colleagues, Cantor, the lone Jewish Republican in Congress, first said no.

Then Cantor said, “I think that all of us know that in this country, we’ve not always gotten it right in terms of racial matters, religious matters, whatever. . . . To sit here and say in America that we’ve got it all right now, I think that pretty much all of us can say we’ve still got work to do.”


What’s more, the net effect of goals espoused by today’s conservatives is to achieve some of the outcomes sought by Bourbon Democrats. President Obama described their philosophy in a speech last month:

“If you’re out of work, can’t find a job, tough luck; you’re on your own. If you don’t have health care, that’s your problem; you’re on your own. If you’re born into poverty, lift yourself up out of your own — with your own bootstraps, even if you don’t have boots; you’re on your own,” he told a crowd in Burlington, Vt. “They believe . . . that’s how America has advanced. That’s the cramped, narrow conception they have of liberty.”

Conservatives today, of course, reject that characterization.

But conservative Democrats of the late 19th and early 20th century and today’s Republican conservatives would probably agree that:

America is better off when the federal government leaves people to fend for themselves;

Markets that are free from government regulation and taxes will produce prosperity;

There are rungs on the ladder of opportunity, but many at the bottom are too lazy to climb;

The wealthy, to whom much has been given, have no stake in anybody else’s success;

A business’s obligation is to those who own it;

We will not as a people go up or down together; in the end, each is on his or her own.

Yes, there are differences between the United States at the turn of the 20th century and today. But there are similarities too.

Protecting the interests of the propertied and the politically powerful may be a legacy handed down from yesterday’s conservative Bourbon Democrats to today’s conservative Republicans.

By: Colbert I. King, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, April 20. 2012

April 22, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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