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Children watch a 1965 voting rights march led by Dr. Martin Luther King from Selma, Alabama to the state capital in Montgomery. (Photo by William Lovelace/Express/Getty Images)

For the Benefit of White Men and Their Posterity Forever, and None Others

Abby Zimet

This week saw sordid history circling back on itself as all 50, craven,  breathtakingly hypocritical Senate Republicans - the clan that's perpetrated the big dumb lie about stolen elections while launching a massive assault on voting rights - refused to even debate a bill to protect voting rights, all while dredging up the same bogus rhetoric they've literally used for centuries to cling to white power. By declining to consider the widely supported For the People Act - "Democracy is in peril here" - a broken Senate, led by an autocratic, long-past-his-due-date Mitch McConnell, thus doubled down on its gerrymandering, its close to 400 voter suppression bills across the country, its abuse of the filibuster to defy the popular will of the people, and other shameless efforts to curb the power of a fed-up, increasingly multi-racial electorate that's Just Not That Into Them anymore. It also "reverted back to some of its darkest days," parroting the hollow fiction of states' rights they used in the 1960s to block civil rights laws in the name of "federal overreach." Ensuring that people of color have equal access to the ballot box - and don't drop from heat stroke or dehydration while standing in line - would "take away the rights of people in each of the 50 states to determine which election rules work best for their citizens,” bleated a sanctimonious Susan Collins. We're guessing she had no idea that, on the same date 57 years ago, following the election rules that worked best for their citizens, white terrorists in a rabidly segregated Mississippi abducted, tortured and murdered three civil rights workers to halt a "nigger communist invasion" - aka for the crime of registering black people to vote.

In the middle of the night on June 21, 1964, a gang of local Klansmen, some of whom worked for the Neshoba County Sheriff's Department, dragged from their car James Chaney, 21, a black Mississippian, Andrew Goodman, 20, and Mickey Schwerner 25, both white Jews from New York. Part of what became known as Freedom Summer, they were among thousands of young hopeful volunteers summoned to Mississippi by a coalition of civil rights to join the drive to register black voters. Chaney and Schwerner worked for the Council of Racial Equality (CORE); Goodman had recently arrived. That night Chaney, the one black man, was savagely beaten, whipped with chains, castrated and shot three times in front of the other two. Schwerner was shot through the heart while bending over Chaney's body. Goodman tried to run; he was shot too, and reportedly buried alive. While dragging a river during the search that followed, Navy divers found eight other murder victims, one wearing a CORE t-shirt. None of the murderers served more than six years; their leader was free for 41 years until uncovered, and served 12 of a 60-years sentence before dying in prison. The three men were in Mississippi to register voters, period, notes Charlie Pierce: "That was all. That was the extent of their offenses against the system the Klan sheriff defended by killing them as horribly as possible." Having this week witnessed "ignorant Senate goons" refuse to debate a bill to restore or protect rights slashed by GOP state laws "just as restrictive as any of those Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney were slaughtered trying to change," an appalled Pierce asks,  "However did we get here?"

The answer, of course, is as long and grievous and convoluted as this country's racist history. On July 2, weeks after the three murders, Lyndon Johnson broke through a GOP Senate filibuster to sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964; about a year later, he signed the Voting Rights Act to re-enforce it. Both were widely viewed as inviolable. But in 1980, Reagan launched his successful presidential campaign - in Neshoba County - with a speech heralding states' rights. In 1989, Mississippi lawmakers refused to support a resolution honoring the three murdered men. And this week, notes Todd Gitlin, a hidebound Senate GOP once again pointedly refused to protect rights "fought for, and won, by the brilliance and audacity of millions who refused to yield to bloodshed and terror half a century ago." In that "long and tortured history," Gitlin writes, reactionary Repubs "have played a long game," and Dems must do the same to assert "the right to vote is a universal imperative." In this five-alarm moment of a relentless GOP war on that imperative and democracy itself, writes Ari Berman, we are seeing the “greatest assault on voting rights since the end of Reconstruction in the late 1870s.” Many have echoed him, arguing the years after the Civil War represented  "the most significant wave of democracy this country had ever seen" as newly freed slaves and their allies fought for their rights. Proving sorry history does in fact repeat itself, often  more than once, then as now that movement was followed by a racist, mindless, often violent backlash from those clutching onto power they could see waning in a new multi-racial world, eerily presenting us with the spectacle of the "same vile principle" at work 160 years later.

In 1858, Abraham Lincoln, challenging Stephen A. Douglas for his Senate seat, faced off against Douglas in a series of debates; a key issue was states' rights, or "popular sovereignty," especially on the subject of human slavery. As historian Heather Cox Richardson astutely notes, the core issue was power and who would wield it: "Douglas insisted democracy meant that voters in the states (could) arrange their governments however they wished. But central to that belief was who, exactly, would be doing the arranging." The rawly racist language of the debates is startlingly of its time: Seeking to expose Lincoln as (gasp) a secret abolitionist, Douglas charged Lincoln "would not say whether or not he was opposed to negroes voting and negro citizenship," quoted the Declaration of Independence in speeches "to prove that all men were created equal" under both divine and American law, in the north supported his "ally, in the person of FRED DOUGLASS, THE NEGRO, preaching Abolition doctrines," and "they had the same negro hunting me down (and) speaking in behalf of Lincoln." On his side, Douglas argued "we ought to extend to the negro every right which he is capable of enjoying....What these rights are...each state (must) decide for itself." His brutal bottom line: "I say to you in all frankness, gentlemen, that in my opinion a negro is not a citizen, cannot be, and ought not to be" because "he is a negro, belonging to a race incapable of self-government...I say that this government was established on the white basis. It was made by white men, for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever, and never should be administered by any except white men." His speech was met with "deafening applause." This week, Richardson found it "chilling" to hear his argument echo in the Senate. The only difference: They didn't say the quiet, vile, racist parts out loud.

Abby Zimet

Abby Zimet

Abby has written CD's Further column since 2008. A longtime, award-winning journalist, she moved to the Maine woods in the early 70s, where she spent a dozen years building a house, hauling water and writing before moving to Portland. Having come of political age during the Vietnam War, she has long been involved in women's, labor, anti-war, social justice and refugee rights issues. 

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