UnderCurrents: We Will Watch What Happens in Florida

Friday July 16, 2004

The systematic, targeted disenfranchisement of large numbers of African-American Florida voters by the administration of Gov. Jeb Bush in 2000 probably cost Al Gore the election, and cost both the nation and the world a great deal more. We learn, now, that Brother Bush appears to be up to it again in preparation for the 2004 presidential vote. 

To which I can only repeat the admonition of generations of black Southern grandmothers: “Mind what you stir up, boys.” To some of us, this is a bit more important than just this year’s presidential politics. 

One of the most treasured documents in my family’s possession is a letter from a California historical society. “Edward West Parker is listed in the 1872 Great Register of San Francisco County Voters as having registered to vote on Apr. 15, 1870, the very first day registration under the 15th amendment to the U.S. Constitution,” the letter reads. “He listed his occupation as a bootmaker; his birthplace as Virginia… He gave his age as 54 on the date of registration.” 

Edward Parker was my great-grandfather. 

The folks my great-grandfather left behind in Virginia and the rest of the South had to wait a bit longer to obtain their citizenship rights. The vote was extended to Southern blacks briefly following the Civil War, then was snatched away again in the bloody American terrorist campaigns of the 1870s and 1880s. Countless thousands of black citizens were jailed, murdered, or thrown off land or jobs for the simple “crime” of voting or seeking public office. Governor and U.S. Senator Ben Tillman—Pitchfork Ben—later publicly boasted that the former Confederates retook the state from blacks and white Republicans through “fraud and violence.” 

Think this is ancient history? United States Senator Strom Thurmond’s father, J. William Thurmond, actively participated in those anti-black terrorist campaigns of the 1870s and 1880s. One wonders what stories and lessons Senator Thurmond, the son, passed on to which willing listeners until his recent death. Trent Lott, still a United States senator, seemed to think Thurmond a national treasure, despite his long history of segregationist activity and anti-black rhetoric. 

In 1965, almost a hundred years after my great-grandfather registered to vote for the first time in San Francisco, civil rights demonstrations tried to march from Selma, Alabama to the state capitol in Montgomery to protest the continued denial of black voting rights in the Southern states. At the Edmund Pettus Bridge just outside of Selma, they were met by a phalanx of Dallas County Sheriff’s deputies mounted on horses. The deputies charged the line of non-violent marchers, beating left and right with their billy clubs. I know some of the people who were on that bridge that day. One of them—a good friend, John Battiste—later told me about a fellow marcher who ever afterwards cautioned civil rights workers, “Don’t ever let them hit you in the head. Whatever you do, don’t ever let them do that.” She did not have to explain why. 

The national furor over the Edmund Pettus beatings led to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the enfranchisement of millions of Southern black voters. But the attacks on Southern black voting rights did not end. A year later, when black Alabamans tried to actually use that vote to put their choice of candidates into office in several Alabama counties, many were beaten and intimidated by terrorist night-riders. I worked as a poll watcher in Selma during that 1966 election, and got run from the polls by Sheriff Jim Clark, who led the Edmund Pettus attacks. No, for many of us, black disenfranchisement is not ancient history. It is living memory. 

The violence against black voters and officeholders began to wane in the late 1960s, but not the desire to limit the effect of African-American voting. I remember one trick, among many, during the 1970s in Charleston, South Carolina. They used the old hand-lever voting machines in those days, and every election, without fail, one of those mechanical devices would break down in one of the big black precincts in the city on the morning of election day. It was never the same precinct, and it was never for the same reason. But like clockwork, one of those voting machines would break down each election morning, while a hundred black voters or so would stand up in line, unable to vote, waiting for the repairmen who would take forever, the voters eventually leaving so they could get to work. How many black votes were lost by this procedure? Nobody knows. How many other such procedures continue in the Southern states, down to this day? We don’t know that, either. But we can be allowed to speculate. 

We do know that in the Florida Presidential elections of 2000, the administration of Gov. Jeb Bush used existing state law to purge convicted felons from the voting rolls, the “problem” being that the state “accidentally” purged many voters who didn’t happen to be convicted felons, and large numbers of those incorrectly and illegally purged Florida voters “happened” to be black. 

Under great pressure from civil rights organizations, the State of Florida promised that they would not repeat those mistakes in the upcoming 2004 elections. However, just this weekend, we learned that of the 48,000 Florida citizens on the felony purge list this year, only 61 were of Hispanic origin, an anomaly only possible if Florida Hispanics did not commit crimes at the same rate as other Floridians. The Florida Secretary of State called the situation an “unintentional and unforeseen discrepancy,” totally unrelated to the fact that Florida Hispanics were far more likely to vote for President George W. Bush than would be Florida African-Americans. After the Miami Herald reported that some 2,100 ex-felons were still on the purged list even though their civil rights had been restored by the state (“many of them black Democrats,” the Herald says), the Florida felon purge list was scrapped by the state. Local counties will now decide on their who can vote in November, and who cannot. Decide well, friends. 

Just like in the old civil rights days, groups of American citizens are going down to Florida, working to make sure that black Floridians keep their right to vote. For those of us who cannot make the journey, there are other options. If Florida shows—once again—that black voters are not fully welcome in their state, we might consider the option that maybe our consumer dollars should not be welcome, either. We should watch Florida carefully and, after November, tally up. 

I never met my great-grandfather, Edward West Parker. But I cannot imagine that he would disapprove of such a step.›