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Jim Crow Revival

Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr.
Chicago, Illinois

Aaron McGruder’s Boondocks got it right. A recent cartoon strip showed Donald Rumsfeld talking about how an “election in only three-fourths or four-fifths of the country for whatever reason” would be “better than not having an election at all.” “And now,” Rumsfeld says, “ I’d like to switch gears and talk about Iraq.”

In the United States, we are less than a month away from the election and already it is clear that strenuous efforts are being made to intimidate, impede and obstruct the vote of minorities, particularly African Americans. If the intimidators have their way, we’ll have a vote in which as much as a fourth of the country’s citizens will have to overcome barriers in order to vote. Iraq will have nothing on us.

Voter suppression has been a technique used by both parties. But today, the Republican Party, which built its majority by becoming a whites-only party across the South, has a particular stake in suppressing the minority vote. Republicans know that if African Americans and Latinos vote in large numbers, their race-bait politics becomes a liability, not strength. So they are unleashing the modern version of Jim Crow voter suppression techniques. Consider the following:

In Florida -- yes Florida once more -- Governor Jeb Bush and his partisan election commissioner tried to enforce a biased list of felons to exclude voters, including thousands of African Americans who weren’t felons while having virtually no Cuban Americans on the list. (They tend to vote Republican). Bush has also insisted on using voting machines that have no paper record, and are easily manipulated. Former president Jimmy Carter said he could not serve as an election observer in Florida because the Governor’s system failed to meet minimal international standards for free elections. The Civil Rights Commission reported that in 2000, black voters in Florida were 10 times more likely than non-black voters to have their ballots rejected and were often prevented from voting because their names were erroneously purged from registration lists

  • In the swing state of Michigan this summer, Republican state Rep. John Pappageorge was quoted in the Detroit Free Press as saying, "If we do not suppress the Detroit vote, we're going to have a tough time in this election." African Americans comprise 83 percent of Detroit's population.
  • In the critical state of Ohio, the Republican election official, facing a record wave of voter registration in minority communities, ruled that no registrations would be accepted if not printed on thick, 80-pound stock paper. Registrars now have a backlog of thousands in trying to mail new registration forms to those already registered before the deadline.
  • In hotly contested South Dakota’s June 2004 primary, Native American voters were prevented from voting when they couldn’t provide photo IDs, which they were not required to present under state or federal law.
  • In Kentucky this July, even black Republican officials objected to their State GOP party chairman’s plans to place "vote challengers" in African-American precincts during the coming elections.
  • In 2003 in Philadelphia, voters in African American areas were systematically challenged by men carrying clipboards, driving a fleet of some 300 sedans with magnetic signs designed to look like law enforcement insignia.
  • In elections in Baltimore in 2002 and in Georgia last year, black voters were sent fliers saying anyone who hadn't paid utility bills or had outstanding parking tickets or were behind on their rent would be arrested at polling stations.
  • In majority black colleges across the South, students are too often told erroneously that they can’t vote where they go to school. Registrars refuse to set up registration and voting booths on campus, hoping to discourage student turnout. Earlier this year in Waller County, Texas, a local district attorney told students at a majority black college that they were not eligible to vote in the county where the school is located -- the same county where 26 years earlier, a federal court order was required to prevent discrimination against the students.

The Justice Department should be aggressively investigating these outrages under the Voting Rights Act. But Attorney General John Ashcroft is a rabid right-wing Republican partisan who is no stranger to voter suppression. As Governor of Missouri, he vetoed two efforts to correct biased registration provisions between St Louis County (then mostly white) and St Louis City (half African American).

The Kerry campaign and outside groups are organizing voter protection efforts and batteries of lawyers to help those who have their right to vote challenged. But Jim Crow tactics only get reversed when their victims organize and move together. We need a new movement for voting rights in this country. Those who seek to tamper with this basic right are unfit for office.

Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sr., is founder and President of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.

-- Issued October 5, 2004

Published in In Motion Magazine October 25, 2004.

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