53 Years After Freedom Summer, Voter Suppression Still Thrives in America
Voter registration drives are no longer impeded by bombings, but stringent new laws that require multiple IDs and other hurdles.
James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner.
Many won’t recognize these names, but as the Trump administration and other lawmakers make unprecedented attempts to disenfranchise voters, it is even more important that we be reminded of those who fought and died for our right to vote.
These three men were just a few of the thousands of volunteers who participated in the Mississippi Summer Project, also known as Freedom Summer, in 1964. The Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and other civil rights groups organized the campaign in an effort to expand Black voter-ship in the south. In a state where Blacks made up one-third of the population, only 6 percent were registered to vote.
Busloads of mostly white activists arrived in Mississippi to assist these grassroots efforts, but weren’t prepared for the lengths that residents, business owners, local and federal governments would go to keep structural racism intact.
Days into the ten-week project, Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner went missing. Chaney was a Black CORE activist from Mississippi, and Goodman and Schwerner were two white volunteers from New York. A Hoover-led FBI investigation soon followed and did nothing to curb the abuse that activists were enduring. Black homes, churches, and businesses became targets for bombings, burnings, and drive-by shootings; racists beat and killed activists. To Black people it was nothing new, but the violence perpetuated against white activists drew national attention.
A tip-off led to the discovery of the buried bodies of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner on Aug. 4, 1964. Members of the KKK had shot Goodman and Schwerner at point-blank range. They chased, beat and shot Chaney three times. By the end of the summer, the activist-led campaign had only registered 1200 new Black voters in Mississippi, but the events of Freedom Summer left a lasting imprint on the nation.
No longer could we ignore how state-sanctioned racism was terrorizing Southern Blacks. It was impossible to claim ourselves as leader of the free world while footage of Black folks being beaten and killed for exercising their Constitutional right to vote was released.
When the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, many considered the issue resolved. In truth, racism had only adapted its methods and become more cunning in its mission to elevate white people at the expense of all others. It learned to finesse its way around laws and adapt its language so as to remain undetected. It became so stealth that sometimes even those who suffered at its hands were unable to recognize it.
Last week, Kris Kobach, the secretary of state of Kansas and the vice chairman of the President’s Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, requested the personal information of all registered voters from all 50 states. This includes full names, birth dates, addresses, political affiliations, voting history and last four digits of Social Security numbers. The letter says that all documents provided to the commission will be public.
This is part of the President’s concerted efforts to affirm his lie that he won the popular margin over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, which would mean that millions of votes cast in that election were illegal. If the commission’s requests for information are met (thankfully, more than 20 states have already refused to comply with the order), it is likely that Kobach will implement a version of his “Interstate Crosscheck” to eliminate supposed double registrants. Crosscheck is a flawed system, because if two names match based on very loose criteria–like first and last name, even if the Social Security numbers don’t match–it generates false positives and results in the removal of voters who are legitimately registered in only one state.
In a mobile society with decentralized election systems, it is inevitable that some voters will end up being registered in more than one state. The Trump administration seems to have forgotten this, despite the fact that members of its own inner circle (Stephen K. Bannon, Steven Mnuchin, Jared Kushner and Tiffany Trump) were registered to vote in multiple states last year.
After the commission creates enough evidence to make its false claims about voter fraud, it is likely that it will pass along recommendations that suppress voters. We can expect that Kobach will try to implement something along the lines of his “show me your papers” law, which requires voter registration applicants in Kansas to provide a citizenship document like a passport or a birth certificate when registering to vote. Laws such as these impede voter registration drives and discourage immigrant populations from voting.
As conservatives see their political power threatened by young voters and communities of color, many state governments are taking similar measures to disenfranchise voters. Critics have continuously pointed towards Florida’s voter intimidation tactics since the 2000 Presidential Election. Lawmakers passed a law in 2011 that reduced early voting days, barred voter-registration activities of groups like the League of Women Voters, and created roadblocks for voters who had moved to a different county within the state since the last election. In May of last year, an appeals court struck down a North Carolina voter-ID law, claiming that it targeted Black voters “with almost surgical precision.”
Felony disenfranchisement is another suppression tactic that overwhelmingly impacts African-Americans. In the 2016 presidential election, over 6 million Americans were denied the right to vote because of felony disenfranchisement. Thirty U.S. states deny voting rights to felony probationers, and thirty-four states disenfranchise parolees. Twelve states deny voting rights to individuals who have successfully fulfilled their prison, parole, and probation sentences. This has led to one in 13 Blacks of voting age being disenfranchised, a rate more than four times greater than that of non-Black people. More than one in five Black people are disenfranchised in the states of Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia.
53 summers later and less has changed than we’re likely to admit. Instead of seeing Blacks being sprayed with fire hoses, we get live streams of police officers killing Black parents in front of their children. Voter registration drives are no longer impeded by bombings, but stringent new laws that require multiple IDs and other hurdles. Society has become more adept in protecting those in power, but I worry that we as citizens have not adapted in the same way.
Featured Image: Lauren Shiplett, Creative Commons.