Rev. Norman Franklin. Photo provided

By the Rev. Norman Franklin

In a democracy governed by the will of the people, the ballot gives tremendous power to organized and centralized voters. A coordinated turnout of likeminded voters can determine the outcome of elections and set the sociopolitical identity of the nation.

America was comfortable with its identity forged in the chattel slave system, power forged in the sting of the whip that maintained the order of society. With the end of slavery through the devastation of the Civil War and the adoption of the 14th and 15th Amendments that followed, a new social reality was center stage. The once enslaved Africans were now citizens with rights to the ballot.

The social structure and the economy of the South was in peril. Its economic power was vested in the free labor of hundreds of thousands of slaves. It was greed that fueled the colonial’s fervidness in the transatlantic slave trade. The plantation system required thousands of Africans to harvest the cotton, rice and tobacco crops that built the South into a commercial powerhouse.

The South never conceived that these slaves, now numbering in the millions, would one day be free citizens of this country and empowered with the right to vote. They found this unacceptable and immediately moved with circumvention tactics.  The salamandrine character of White privilege adapts to what is necessary to maintain the power structure.

Blacks outnumbered Whites in the southern states, giving Blacks the right to the ballot was guaranteed to dismantle the White power structure. The sovereignty of Southern state rights effectively negated the amendment’s inclusionary provisions; Black codes and Jim Crow laws were the only authority that reigned. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 dethroned the system that ruled with violence and intimidation with impunity.

I’m reminded of a scene in the movie, “Gettysburg” produced by the Turner Network. The Union Army withstood the offensive of the Confederate Army on the first day of the battle. The scene opens in the Union camp. It’s quiet, reflective, the soldiers are connecting with those who survived, sipping coffee, thinking it may be over. Then suddenly shells exploded, and every soldier is scrambling to position himself for the ensuing assault. The battle is not over.

We hoped the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had capped the struggle, the battles won, the nation can now move on to living out its creed of one nation under God, freedom and justice for all. But hatred has the survival skills of the cockroach – cockroaches have survived  attempts to exterminate it and thrived through millennials – and hatred is equally vile and disgusting.

The courts were the channels through which civil rights/voting rights victories were won. The courts are the channels through which those victories will be gutted.  It is unconstitutional, the Robert’s court ruled,  for race to be considered in hiring and college admission policies. Section 2 is all that remains of the Voting Rights Act.

Race is the dynamic concept, the social construct that has been central to accessing the rewards of Americanism. We always played by those rules.  

It has always been a broad definition that set the boundaries of what it meant to be Black. Homer Plessy, a Louisiana Creaole, established the legal color-line in 1890. He could ‘pass’ but chose to identify as Black. He was kicked out of the Whites-only railroad passenger car. His initiative became the test case for separate but equal: Plessy v. Ferguson.

The new battlelines still pivot on race, but from the opposite end of the spectrum. Louisianna Republicans are testing the courts, to muddy the waters. They are seeking to narrow the definition of what is considered Black. It’s a power grab, a narrow, scaled-down definition directly relates to redistricting.

The 2000 census was the first to allow citizens of mixed ethnicity to select all that applied. People were enthused that they could finally embrace their whole identity.  Southern Republicans want the Supreme Courts to rule that only those who checked off the single census box for Black will be considered in the mix when it comes to redrawing congressional districts. A favorable ruling from the conservative court could open the gateway for dismantling the Civil Rights and the Voting Rights Acts.

Another subversive tactic that is practiced openly is felony disenfranchisement. An estimated 5.1 million voting age citizens are denied the ballot because of felony convictions. In some states, disenfranchisement is permanent. In others, voting rights are restored after parole or probation is completed. In a couple states, Vermont and Maine, felons are permitted to vote even while incarcerated. These latter two states have less than 2% Black population and a very low prison population: 1,229 in Vermont, 1,714 in Maine. Thirty-five percent of the prison population in both states are Black.

Felony disenfranchisement has been an effective tactic for diluting the power of the Black voters. Supporters of felony disenfranchisement argue that convicted felons have broken the social contract and have forfeited their rights to participate in a civil society. Advocates against argue that such practices pose political incentives to use the criminal justice system to disproportionally target minority groups.

The United States maintains the highest prison population than most developed countries. Nearly two million people are incarcerated in state or federal prisons and local jails. Nearly 70% of the prisoners are people of color. The Criminal Justice System is a weapon of injustice that benefits those who hold authority in America.

Editor’s Note: The views expressed in this commentary piece do not necessarily the express the opinions of The Cincinnati Herald.

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