Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American
January 16, 2022
Republicans say they oppose the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act because it is an attempt on the part of Democrats to win elections in the future by “nationalizing” them, taking away the right of states to arrange their laws as they wish. Voting rights legislation is a “partisan power grab,” Representative Jim Jordan (R-OH) insists.
In fact, there is no constitutional ground for opposing the idea of Congress weighing in on federal elections. The U.S. Constitution establishes that “[t]he Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations.”
There is no historical reason to oppose the idea of voting rights legislation, either. Indeed, Congress weighed in on voting pretty dramatically in 1870, when it amended the Constitution itself for the fifteenth time to guarantee that “[t]he right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” In that same amendment, it provided that “[t]he Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”
It did so, in 1965, with “an act to enforce the fifteenth amendment to the Constitution,” otherwise known as the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a law designed to protect the right of every American adult to have a say in their government, that is, to vote. The Supreme Court gutted that law in 2013; the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act is designed to bring it back to life.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a response to conditions in the American South, conditions caused by the region’s descent into a one-party state in which white Democrats acted as the law, regardless of what was written on the statute books.
After World War II, that one-party system looked a great deal like that of the race-based fascist system America had been fighting in Europe, and when Black and Brown veterans, who had just put their lives on the line to fight for democracy, returned to their homes in the South, they called those similarities out.
Democratic president Franklin Delano Roosevelt of New York had been far too progressive on racial issues for most southern Democrats, and when Harry S. Truman took office after FDR’s death, they were thrilled that one of their own was taking over. Truman was a white Democrat from Missouri who had been a thorough racist as a younger man, quite in keeping with his era’s southern Democrats.
But by late 1946, Truman had come to embrace civil rights. In 1952, Truman told an audience in Harlem, New York, what had changed his mind.
“Right after World War II, religious and racial intolerance began to show up just as it did in 1919,” he said. ”There were a good many incidents of violence and friction, but two of them in particular made a very deep impression on me. One was when a Negro veteran, still wearing this country’s uniform, was arrested, and beaten and blinded. Not long after that, two Negro veterans with their wives lost their lives at the hands of a mob.”
Truman was referring to decorated veteran Sergeant Isaac Woodard, who was on a bus on his way home from Georgia in February 1946, when he told a bus driver not to be rude to him because “I’m a man, just like you.” In South Carolina, the driver called the police, who pulled Woodard into an alley, beat him, then arrested him and threw him in jail, where that night the police chief plunged a nightstick into Woodard’s eyes, permanently blinding him. The next day, a local judge found Woodard guilty of disorderly conduct and fined him $50. The state declined to prosecute the police chief, and when the federal government did—it had jurisdiction because Woodard was in uniform—the people in the courtroom applauded when the jury acquitted him, even though he had admitted he had blinded the sergeant.
Two months after the attack on Woodard, the Supreme Court decided that all-white primaries were unconstitutional, and Black people prepared to vote in Georgia’s July primaries. Days before the election, a mob of 15 to 20 white men killed two young Black couples: George and Mae Dorsey, and Roger and Dorothy Malcom. Malcom had been charged with stabbing a white man and was bailed out of jail by Loy Harrison, his white employer, who had with him in his car both Malcom’s wife, who was seven months pregnant, and the Dorseys, who also sharecropped on his property.
On the way home, Harrison took a back road. A waiting mob stopped the car, took the men and then their wives out of it, tied them to a tree, and shot them. The murders have never been solved, in large part because no one—white or Black—was willing to talk to the FBI inspectors Truman dispatched to the region. FBI inspectors said the whites were “extremely clannish, not well educated and highly sensitive to ‘outside’ criticism,” while the Blacks were terrified that if they talked, they, too, would be lynched.
The FBI did uncover enough to make the officers think that one of the virulently racist candidates running in the July primary had riled up the assassins in the hopes of winning the election. With all the usual racial slurs, he accused one of his opponents of being soft on racial issues and assured the white men in the district that if they took action against one of the Black men, who had been accused of stabbing a white man, he would make sure they were pardoned. He did win the primary, and the murders took place eight days later.
Songwriters, radio announcers, and news media covered the cases, showing Americans what it meant to live in states in which law enforcement and lawmakers could do as they pleased. When an old friend wrote to Truman to beg him to stop pushing a federal law to protect Black rights, Truman responded: “I know you haven’t thought this thing through and that you do not know the facts. I am happy, however, that you wrote me because it gives me a chance to tell you what the facts are.”
“When the mob gangs can take four people out and shoot them in the back, and everybody in the country is acquainted with who did the shooting and nothing is done about it, that country is in pretty bad fix from a law enforcement standpoint.”
“When a Mayor and City Marshal can take a…Sergeant off a bus in South Carolina, beat him up and put out…his eyes, and nothing is done about it by the State authorities, something is radically wrong with the system.”
In his speech in Harlem, Truman explained that “[i]t is the duty of the State and local government to prevent such tragedies.” But, as he said in 1947, the federal government must “show the way.” We need not only “protection of the people against the Government, but protection of the people by the Government.”
Truman’s conversion came in the very early years of the Civil Rights Movement, which would soon become an intellectual, social, economic, and political movement conceived of and carried on by Black and Brown people and their allies in ways he could not have imagined in the 1940s.
But Truman laid a foundation for what came later. He recognized that a one-party state is not a democracy, that it enables the worst of us to torture and kill while the rest live in fear, and that “[t]he Constitutional guarantees of individual liberties and of equal protection under the laws clearly place on the Federal Government the duty to act when state or local authorities abridge or fail to protect these Constitutional rights.”
That was true in 1946, and it is just as true today.