New voter suppression proposals echo North Carolina’s dark past

New voter suppression proposals echo North Carolina’s dark past

Sen. Ben Tillman (L) and Rep. David Lewis (R)

Would that North Carolina lawmakers had been so direct as “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman, a virulent white supremacist from South Carolina who, in February 1900, told his colleagues on the U.S. Senate floor that the South’s methodical disenfranchisement of African Americans was, in fact, some sort of triumph.

“We have done our level best,” Tillman boasted. “We have scratched our heads to find out how we could eliminate every last one of them. We stuffed ballot boxes. We shot them. We are not ashamed of it.”

No chance of hearing such transparently abhorrent rhetoric from House Speaker Tim Moore or Rep. David Lewis, so we’re left to parse the impacts of these powerful Republicans’ efforts to, yet again, dilute the voting power of North Carolina minorities, particularly Black voters.

Lewis’ “expanded early voting act,” a Master’s class in irony, will jettison a Saturday of early voting that’s so crucial to poor, working class and minority voters without the luxury of leaving work to cast a ballot. It’s a day that drew out 200,000 North Carolinians in 2016. And it will strip local discretion in setting the hours at polling sites, an unfunded directive that may dissuade districts from coughing up the cash to provide weekend voting sites.

Meanwhile, Moore would ask voters to decide this fall if North Carolina should implement the kind of voter ID requirement that a federal appeals court eviscerated in 2016 for its “surgical precision” in blockading Black voters, a rank revival of Jim Crow’s ossified remains.

Moore and Lewis will—regardless of how they become swollen and blustery and spitting at the prospect of being conflated with racists—unfurl voting laws that would boost their political prospects at the expense of southern Black voters.

General Assembly leadership will tell their skeptics to come down from their judgmental perch. And they will tell them to sideline the hyperbole, even though the leadership of this General Assembly seems to legislate in a state of near-constant hyperbole.

To these leaders, the nonexistent threat of nefarious men invading the women’s restroom necessitated the national spectacle of HB2. And to these leaders, the virtually immaterial problems posed by voter fraud necessitate every effort to demand photo ID at the polls, despite the unimagined deterrent it disproportionately offers our poor, elderly and Black residents. To thwart the imaginary, fraudulent voter they would obstruct the legitimate voter.

You would think the North Carolina GOP might have known how reasonable North Carolinians would respond, not that you could tell from their oft-scandalized reactions.

“Our state legislature is the poster child of hollowing out Democracy from within,” one Raleigh woman emailed in a withering, 11 p.m. missive to state Senators last week. “Stop bothering people at such an hour,” Sen. Rick Horner, a Wilson County Republican, groused in reply, apparently oblivious to the kind of late-night, subterranean lawmaking that has become the North Carolina GOP’s calling card in recent years.

“It’s trying to provide a uniform platform,” Lewis told lawmakers of his bill last week, obfuscation at best.

Since they would mince words in the halls of our legislative building, let us not mince words here. These kinds of cynical, racially-charged manipulations will forge the legacies of men like Moore and Lewis, and the GOP caucus that has dominated North Carolina politics for the better part of a decade.

Though they’re deserving, I don’t believe they will be recalled for their miserly budgeting, their redoubtable skill at galvanizing their fundamentalist base, and nihilistic affection for gerrymandering, that time-tested, partisan tool of Democrats and Republicans alike, that bitter enemy to the very concept of democracy.

Should their latest voting manipulations endure the inevitable court challenges to come, they will be known for putting their faith in a very old and very deplorable tactic.

That tactic invented by historical thugs like Tillman, whose poll taxes and literacy taxes and sneering intimidation virtually eliminated African American voting in the Carolinas and many more southern states at the turn of the 1900s, when energized southern, Black voters—boasting stunning turnout of around 90 percent in some elections—threatened to overturn what decades of white supremacy had wrought.

“Rarely has a community invested so many hopes in politics as did Blacks during Radical Reconstruction,” wrote Eric Foner, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and author of “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877.”

And rarely has such hopefulness been repaid in such noxious fashion. And rarely has such a movement—like the one led by proudly racist, white Democrats like Tillman in the Reconstruction era—been so brutally effective in quashing opposition in southern states, a movement with effects felt long past the turn of the century, long past the Civil Rights Act, and into modern North Carolina.

Moore and Lewis are not crass bulldogs like Tillman, who once decked a political rival on the Senate floor.

They are typical of the conservatives that shape North Carolina politics these days. They are genial men, sporting an easy southern drawl and a quick wit. And while they’re cool to media outlets like this one, they maintain a general affability to the rural constituents they purport to serve in Raleigh, all while scoffing at the historical comparisons they so richly deserve.

But it’s not that these policymakers have forgotten history. Indeed, they seem to have studied it scrupulously, taken inspiration, and repurposed a minstrel show no one in this state ever wanted to watch again.

They would breathe life into Jim Crow’s withered husk, parading it about, much to North Carolina’s everlasting shame. North Carolinians—all North Carolinians, Black, white, Latino, Asian, native, multiracial, all North Carolinians—should tell the General Assembly to bury Jim Crow. Let the worms eat his remains, let his name be damned to hell. And when we’re done, mark his gravestone 2018.