The Racism of Confederate Monuments Extends to Voter Suppression

The Racism of Confederate Monuments Extends to Voter Suppression
Cover Image Credit: "United We Stand" KicknFlickz, Richmond, Virginia.

Over the past few weeks, Americans have watched as Black Lives Matter protests have turned on Confederate monuments, vandalizing them, tearing them down, spraying them with graffiti with messages to end police brutality or to call out the racism that is tearing our country apart.

As a result, several municipalities across the South have begun to take local action to remove their monuments, often located on courthouse lawns or along public thoroughfares. Doing so means to defy state laws, some of which were passed in the aftermath of the Charleston Massacre of nine parishioners of Emmanuel AME Church five years ago.

Today voter suppression in several states, made worse by gerrymandered districts like in my home state of North Carolina, makes it difficult to near impossible to elect officials who will change laws, including those intended to preserve Confederate monuments. In fact, the history of Confederate monuments is tied directly to the disenfranchisement of black voters and has been since the 1890s.

When the monument to Robert E. Lee was unveiled in Richmond in 1890, African Americans in that city recognized it as a symbol of their own oppression and its links to suppressing their right to vote.  Barely a week after unveiling of the Lee Monument, John Mitchell, Jr. the editor of the black newspaper the Richmond Planet, penned an editorial in which he warned readers that the rights blacks had won during Reconstruction were being rolled back, especially the right to vote. “No species of political crimes has been worse than that which wiped the names of thousands of bona-fide Colored Republican voters from the Registration books of this state,” Mitchell wrote. He claimed, rightly, that refusing to allow black men to vote was a “direct violation of the law,” and blamed state officials sworn to uphold the U.S. Constitution for illegally scrubbing the names of men from voter rolls, marking them “dead” or having moved to another state, when neither was true. 

John Mitchell, Jr.

Mitchell’s words were prophetic as he identified what was essentially a backlash against black progress.

In the decade following the Lee Monument’s unveiling, one southern state after another passed laws disenfranchising black men, a right that was guaranteed by the Fifteenth Amendment. The elimination of black voters, not only by law but through violent white supremacy, and the creation of Jim Crow legislation that limited black freedom, all occurred during the very same years that the hundreds of Confederate monuments now at issue were built across the South.  And black southerners did not have a say in the matter, because their rights as citizens had been obliterated. Even in towns where they represented the majority of the population, they could not vote to prevent them from being built in the center of towns where they lived, they could not petition to have them removed, and they could not protest them publicly out of fear of reprisal, although they found ways of doing so out of the view of southern whites.

Following the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and especially the Voting Rights Act of 1965, black southerners not only voted, but elected people to office who looked like them. Local city councils increasingly had black representation and over the course of the next few decades African Americans throughout the region challenged the existence of Confederate symbols on the grounds of local and state government, which were supposed to be democratic public spaces that represented all citizens.

But in the 1990s, as in the 1890s, Republicans found another way to constrict black political power via majority/minority districts. This form of gerrymandering, sometimes called affirmative gerrymandering, did not violate Voting Rights Act regulations. Rather, it consolidated the minority vote, limiting a black majority to one district. As political scientist Angie Maxwell explains, while these new lines ensured minority representation, “it bleached the other districts white, allowing the GOP to pick up seats fast in the South.” The result in 1994 was the Republican takeover of the House.

This model of Republican-favored gerrymandering grew worse in the South in the early twentieth-first century, and its implementation not only guaranteed more GOP seats in Congress, it led to a similar plan that ensured GOP majorities at the state level. And these are the very state legislatures that passed monument laws designed to preserve Confederate monuments in publicly owned spaces.

The gutting of the Voting Rights Act in 2013 in the context of Confederate monument removal is critical to our understanding of this moment of protests.  By suppressing the rights of black voters, as well as white voters who support this movement, GOP-led state legislatures have not only prevented these voters from exercising their rights as citizens, they have usurped local control to remove monuments legally. In essence, they have left no other options for redressing this issue than to take to the streets to demonstrate their frustration.

The statue of Confederate General Williams Carter Wickham lies beside its base in Monroe Park. Photo by Andrew Ringle. Courtesy of The Commonwealth Times

Still, there have been signs in the last few weeks that there are cracks in the system, as local communities across the South have begun the process of removing their monuments, even in defiance of state laws. In Alabama, the cities of Birmingham, Huntsville, and Mobile have taken action to remove their monuments and accept the $25,000 fine the state imposes for such action.  In North Carolina, the law preventing removal of “objects of remembrance” is so imprecise that the towns of Asheville, Rocky Mount, and Salisbury are testing its limits by voting to remove their monuments.

Monuments are ultimately local objects and what becomes of them will be determined by the local communities in which they reside. And while it appears that the tide has turned, as several southern cities and towns have voted or are voting to remove monuments, the state laws remain a barrier to removal.

There also exists a very real concern that once GOP-led southern legislatures return to session, Republicans will close any existing loopholes in monument legislation, which will represent yet another backlash to progress. And once again, there will be no legal redress. And given voter suppression, it removes the possibility of electing officials to amend laws that allow local communities to decide the fate of Confederate monuments.

Under those circumstances, the cycle of protest will begin again.

Metaphor for writing a book

Metaphor for writing a book

Since embarking on my new book project on the Rhythm Club Fire, I’ve gotten questions about why I’d want to work on something so depressing, which is a blog for another day, but mainly they’ve been about what I’ll say.  At this point, I cannot answer that question.  None of us who has authored a book can, especially when we are so early in the process. So, I’ve come up with a metaphor that I think works, and one which people who’ve never written a book can understand.

“It’s like putting together a 500-piece puzzle,” I answer.

At the beginning is the idea, and all of those pieces of evidence.

Puzzle Pieces GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

In the early stages, you begin pulling together ideas that form the basic framework for the book.

So, the basic outlines of the story are . . .

Further into the project, some of the ideas begin to take shape.

largeportionspuzzle
This much is very clear.

Eventually, the day comes when you have figured it out and hooray!

My book is almost as good as a Renoir painting! Not quite, but . . .

As with any puzzle, it takes time and patience, but part of the joy is in the process–figuring out where the pieces fit. When it’s complete there’s a moment of euphoria, but it is fleeting.

Now what?  Time to start a new puzzle.

Dixie’s Daughters almost never happened

Confederacy Daughters Unveil Monument
Members of the UDC gathered at the Confederate monument in Arlington National Cemetery, located in Jackson Circle. ca. 1913, Courtesy of Getty Images

I want to share a story about my 2003 book Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture (University Press of Florida), which will be issued as a revised edition with a scheduled publication date of January 2019.  Woot!

When I drafted the new preface, I thought it would be interesting to provide a little background on the publishing history of Dixie’s Daughters. My justification for including it was that I wanted all of you out there who have struggled to get something published or may end up in that struggle, particularly graduate students and junior scholars who follow my work on Twitter and elsewhere, to know that you aren’t alone.

The struggle is real!!

My own road was such a bumpy one, I despaired that it might never happen.  On the advice of my editor, however, what follows will not be in the revised edition.  Nonetheless, I want to share it with you, in case it is of some comfort or inspiration.

So, for your amusement and edification, here it is:

“It may come as a surprise that Dixie’s Daughters was almost never published. Despite the fact that no less than twelve university presses expressed interest in publishing my dissertation, it was rough going. Three different university presses received the manuscript at various points in time. The editor at the first press I sent the manuscript to never sent it out to readers. Perhaps it served as a very robust coaster for whatever was in his coffee cup. A second more prestigious press did due diligence and I received readers’ reports. One of them supported publication, while the other demurred, citing scholarship that I should engage. The only problem was that said scholarship had yet to be published and remained a work-in-progress. A third regional press took it in for a proposed series that never materialized. After revisions, this press sat on the manuscript for an entire year, only to box it up and mail it to me with the note that it was no longer of interest. At my wit’s end, I reached out to Marjorie Spruill who suggested I work with Meredith Babb at the University Press of Florida. Meredith laid out the process for getting the book published, so I took the boxed up manuscript that had been returned to me and mailed it to her. Unchanged. Within two months I had the readers’ reports and a book contract and, it turned out, a new tenure-track job with the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.”

And the rest, as the saying goes, is history.

 

What’s Happening!!

The cast of What’s Happening!!

As a pre-teen in the ’70s, I was a fan of the show “What’s Happening” with Roger, Dee, their Momma, Rerun, and Dwayne. And let’s not forget Shirley. So, even though I’m writing about what’s happening with me as an author, I can’t help but think of that show.

I’ve got a few speaking/book engagements coming up, too.

University of Michigan, March 12th
Tennessee Williams Festival, March 25th
Univ. of Louisiana-Lafayette, April 10-11th
Seminary Co-op in Chicago, May 3rd
DePaul University, May 4th

Then, in May, Louisiana University Press will release the volume Reassessing the 1930s South, which I co-edited with Sarah Gardner, a professor of history at Mercer University.  The volume is truly interdisciplinary as it brings together scholars of history, literature, and American Studies.

This summer, I’ll return to Natchez for local research on my newest project, which will examine the Rhythm Club Fire that took the lives of 209 African Americans on April 23, 1940.  It was one of the deadliest fires in the history of the U.S., outranking the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York in 1911.

 

History and the YouTube Generation

You can learn just about anything on YouTube.  There are thousands of “how-to” videos for fixing things in your house, setting up the Bluetooth in your car, or solving complicated math problems.

There is also a lot of historical content, some of it very well done and surprisingly popular.  Well, surprising to me, but probably not the generation who has grown up looking for short-cuts to history lessons, which is why historians like me should be involved in their creation by providing reliable content and expertise.  Very recently, I did just that.

A video producer named Coleman Lowndes contacted me and asked me to Skype with him and talk about the “Lost Cause.”  It’s a term that I often have to explain to students and even public audiences. That interview, along with one given by historian Kevin Levin, were then incorporated into the video Lowndes produced for Vox, an online news media outlet that reaches a large millennial audience.

Here is the end result:

Now, while I might take issue with the title, the content was spot on.  And entertaining. It’s also not a lecture, although many of those exist online, too.  At least one lecture I found had been viewed over 400,00 times.  Not bad at all.  But the video above?  It’s closing in on one million views.  ONE MILLION.

I credit this to the video producer who made it, Coleman Lowndes.  He knows his audience–the millennials of the YouTube generation who want to learn and be entertained at the same time.  Please understand: I’m not saying that this generation is limited to one learning style, but if they are going to seek out a video explanation of a historical idea or an event then it’s important to grab, and hold, their attention.  Lowndes did that well.

Even we, historian/teachers, appreciate an entertaining history lesson, which is why so many of us like Drunk History, which began as a YouTube series.  Students like them, too.  One of my favorites is about Harriet Tubman, played by Octavia Spencer.

They get students’ attention and instructors can use them to enhance lectures and prompt discussion.  Just like those Vox videos.

There’s much more out there in YouTube land.  There is history in song (here’s one on the Declaration of Independence), traditional documentaries, and restored historical newsreels.

YouTube videos aren’t the only way to reach the latest generation, of course. But maybe, just maybe, they can spark a real interest among those viewers to go beyond the video in search of more information.  For historians, that’s a win-win.