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Published on Tuesday, November 21, 2000 in the San Francisco Chronicle
Black Voters' Fears Founded On a Long and Sordid History
by Earl Ofari Hutchinson
THE POLLS in Florida had barely closed Nov. 7 when black leaders immediately screamed foul. They charged that in some counties, blacks were harassed and intimidated by police and turned away by registrars, who claimed a shortage of ballots. Then there is the weird butterfly ballot that turned up in some precincts in the heavily black and Jewish precincts of West Palm Beach.

This has ignited the greatest furor.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson has led protests over alleged voting violations.

NAACP President Kweisi Mfume produced a parade of angry black witnesses who swore that they were harassed by registrars or denied ballots. Mfume promptly demanded that Attorney General Janet Reno investigate the charges.

Republicans dismiss black accusations of voting irregularities as another self-serving ruse by the Democrats to tip the vote back to Al Gore. They are right and wrong.

Jackson and Mfume are fervent Gore supporters, and so is the overwhelming majority of black voters in Florida. They voted nearly 10 to one for him. They are terrified that Bush will obliterate civil rights protections and further torpedo social programs. They've made it a feverish, life-and-death campaign to ensure that Florida and the presidency go to Gore.

But for Republicans to dismiss as paranoia and derisively wave off fears by blacks that they were bamboozled at the voting booths ignores the terrible history of the South's century-long effort to disenfranchise black voters. In the decade after the Civil War, blacks voted in far greater numbers in the South than whites. But that quickly changed. With the withdrawal of federal troops and the collapse of Reconstruction, the white South unleashed a naked reign of terror in an effort to drive blacks from the polls.

Southern states attempted to finish the job with a wave of literacy tests, poll taxes, informal voting codes and whites-only primaries. By 1900 -- and for the next half-century -- blacks had virtually disappeared from the voting rolls in the South.

As late as 1948, a Gallop Poll survey found that 8 million blacks eligible to vote in the South were unregistered. The Supreme Court's outlawing of the all-white Democratic Texas primary in 1944, and the strong recommendation by President Harry Truman in 1947 that Congress increase black voter protections, only marginally increased black registration in the South. The Eisenhower administration's 1957 and 1960 civil rights bills contained tepid provisions that permitted the Justice Department to sue districts that denied blacks their voting right. But the White House feared a ferocious Southern backlash to the law and authorized only four lawsuits under the provisions of the act.

The first real breakthrough for blacks came in 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson prodded Congress to take action on his long-stalled voting rights bill after the nation watched the bloody rampage against civil rights marchers in Selma by Alabama troopers. But even with sentiment in favor of the bill's passage, it was not a slam-dunk.

The major opponents to the bill weren't rabidly racist Southern Democrats, but Northern Republicans. House Republicans, then led by minority leader Gerald Ford, proposed four horrible provisions aimed at gutting the bill. The provisions failed to outlaw the poll tax and literacy tests; they authorized the attorney general to bring suit only after receiving a set number of complaints of voting violations; and they eliminated a provision requiring the federal courts to approve all voting laws passed by recalcitrant Southern states. Congress did the right and sensible thing and promptly dumped the Republican provisions, passing the bill with full-enforcement provisions intact.

But this did not end the battle to strengthen black voting rights. White Southern Democrats and Republicans launched a major counter-campaign to bolster white voter registration. The Republicans, long moribund in the South, recognized a huge opportunity to exploit white fears over black political domination and to turn the South into a GOP bastion.

Republican presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Bush carefully crafted and fine-tuned the Republicans' Southern strategy. It was simple: Say and do as little as possible about black rights while actively courting white voters.

The Southern strategy has worked so magnificently that the strategy has become the big gun in the GOP's political arsenal. It certainly paid big dividends for George W. Bush, who swept nearly all of the old Confederacy. And if he makes the sweep complete by bagging Florida, it will likely put him in the White House.

Black voters can't and dare not forget this sordid history of voting betrayal and neglect. And this is why they passionately believe that they were once again victimized at the voting booths in Florida.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of "The Disappearance of Black Leadership."

2000 San Francisco Chronicle


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