Election Offers Compelling Reasons To Study Black HistoryAnyone who lacks a compelling reason to study African American history need only review last year’s debacle, also known as the presidential election, to be reminded that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.
Thousands of African American Floridians were simply denied their voting rights, just as they were decades ago. The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, and extended because of the very sorts of violations that took place in Florida, including the uneven enforcement of law (African Americans were often asked for more forms of identification than Whites), the use of law enforcement officers to intimidate voters and the unjustified purging of people from the voting rolls with little possibility of appeal.
When the Civil Rights Commission held hearings in Florida, they heard a disingenuous Gov. Jeb Bush say he had little knowledge of the details of the election. Similarly, Secretary of State Katherine Harris claimed ignorance, saying that county election officers had more responsibility than she did. One might believe Harris except for the way she overruled counties when they tried to properly count votes in Florida. Civil Rights Commissioner Dr. Mary Frances Berry was uncharacteristically muted when she described the Harris testimony as “laughable.”
The selection of President Bush, and his subsequent nomination of John Ashcroft as attorney general, also reminds us of the importance of African American history. Ashcroft has been interviewed by Southern Partisan magazine and implicitly supported the “values of the Confederacy.” Too many Americans have been persuaded that those who embrace the Confederacy are doing nothing more than uplifting their heritage. In fact, the very tenets of the Confederacy include the premise of African American inferiority, and the presence of any symbol of the losing and decayed Confederacy on state flags or monuments is a direct insult to African American people. Those who wrap themselves in their Confederate ancestry don’t know (or don’t care, but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt) that the Confederacy’s constitution asserted African American inferiority.
Historical knowledge clearly sheds light on our current events, especially from a political perspective. Indeed, had the activists who worked to get out the Black vote remembered the history behind the Voting Rights Act, they may well have taken preventive measures to circumvent Florida’s chicanery. And while some write history through the eyes of elected officials and other key actors, one might view history through the lens of ordinary people.
On Jan. 20, for example, tens of thousands of people demonstrated against the inauguration of President Bush in Florida, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. History may reflect the anger that accompanied the flawed selection of George W. Bush, but it also ought to reflect the motivation that thousands had for taking it to the street.
Journalists will record the leadership of the Rev. Al Sharpton and others who are well-known, but someone also ought to record the names of some of those who demonstrated and the reasons they were there.
There is a connection between the stories of January’s demonstrators and tales from the trenches of the Voting Rights Act. In Florida’s context, we need to remember the people who trudged down to county registrars’ offices a generation ago, only to be turned away because they didn’t “qualify” to vote. If these stories are not told, we run the risk of this election being interpreted through biased eyes. Dozens of letters to the editor, for example, excoriated voters who made mistakes due to flawed ballots. There’s another side to that story, and we need to insist that the other side is recorded and preserved as history.
Too often, when Black History Month is celebrated, it is celebrated through panoramic eyes. People talk about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., about the Voting Rights Act, about slavery, about the legacy of racism. The big picture is compelling, but the smaller picture offers much-needed detail about the struggle and its impact. Even as we speak of sweeping trends, we also need to speak of the small sacrifices, of the hundreds of thousands who participated in mass actions, and of the many ways people resisted injustice and fought, both for the right to vote and for the ability to participate fully in our society.
One of Florida’s teachable moments came when a young African American professional woman told a television crew about her quest to vote. She went to her voting place and found that her name was not on the rolls, so she complained, then left because, she said, she had to get her son to school and then go on to work. The woman was attractive and well spoken, but her statement left me thinking that had she known or fully understood the history of resistance, she might have done more before abandoning her right to vote.
A generation ago, a potential voter, properly coached, might have stayed at the polling place until she was given, at the very least, a provisional ballot. Or, the voter might have returned to the polling place with an attorney or an advocate. In this age of instant gratification, those seeking add-water-and-stir justice don’t stay to struggle, but yield to expediency.
Florida has left our nation with the strange fruit of a flawed election. It also reminds us that there is no expediency in the struggle for justice. The history of African American people in the United States is a history of struggle and resilience. We will need that history’s inspiration and motivation as we fight against efforts to turn the civil rights clock back in the next four years.
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