by iampunha | 6/21/2008 08:00:00 AM
Were a 17th-century European to somehow wind up in little old 2008 America (or 2008 France, Germany, Russia, South Africa ...), that person — let's call her Marie — would experience culture shock most of us, I am firmly convinced, cannot begin to understand. Even with all my Todays in History, I am still looking at the faintest glimmers of snapshots of life before 1950, before 1900, sometimes before even 1800.

Life before complaining about the craptacularity of our suit-wearing warm bodies was allowed (except for when it wasn't) means you're looking at the 18th century in this country, and later in some instances.

But life before being allowed to vote just because you're American, without restriction based on poll taxes and literacy tests, dates back to only 1965. And on June 21 of 1915 and 1964, bodies great in stature and belief struck out against such limitations.

Today we celebrate Guinn v. Unites States and somberly honor the lives and deaths of Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Mickey Schwerner.

Portions of this piece contain racist or outdated terminology. Reader discretion is advised.

For Field Marshal Sir Claude John Eyre Auchinleck, born on June 21, 1884, who with F.W. Winterbotham and millions of others won World War II.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is milestone legislation in this country, a piece of paper and a spirit of equality we can point to as the document that said, in the face of enshrined racism, "Everybody votes. Don't like it? RESIGN."

And indeed, racists in the South (and the North, to be fair) were resigned to the fact that after a filibuster of nearly two months, the Act was passed in 1965, and the giant dance of "You can vote, or not, or yes, or no, or yes, or no" was over.

Did you, like me, think the Voting Rights Act was a singular instance of the U.S. government finding fault with enshrined bigotry, declaring it enshrined bigotry and tearing down the shrine?

That process started (apart from the 13th amendment, which banned slavery but didn't do a lot to help black people vote in the South) on this date in 1915 when the Supreme Court held as unconstitutional grandfather clauses, such as Oklahoma's:

No person shall be registered as an elector of this State or be allowed to vote in any election herein, unless he be able to read and write any section of the constitution of the State of Oklahoma; but no person who was, on January 1, 1866, or at any time prior thereto, entitled to vote under any form of government, or who at that time resided in some foreign nation, and no lineal descendant of such person, shall be denied the right to register and vote because of his inability to so read and write sections of such constitution. Precinct election inspectors having in charge the registration of electors shall enforce the provisions of this section at the time of registration, provided registration be required. Should registration be dispensed with, the provisions of this section shall be enforced by the precinct election officer when electors apply for ballots to vote.

SCOTUS made fairly clear its opinion of these clauses:

The so-called Grandfather Clause of the amendment to the constitution of Oklahoma of 1910 is void because it violates the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

The Grandfather Clause being unconstitutional, and not being separable from the remainder of the amendment to the constitution of Oklahoma of 1910, that amendment as a whole is invalid.

The Fifteenth Amendment does not, in a general sense, take from the States the power over suffrage possessed by the States from the beginning, but it does restrict the power of the United States or the States to abridge or deny the right of a citizen of the United States to vote on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude. While the Fifteenth Amendment gives no right of suffrage, as its command is self-executing, rights of suffrage may be enjoyed by reason of the striking out of discriminations against the exercise of the right.

The bolding is mine, and it's because fans of strict interpretation will want to note that under the "The Constitution only says explicitly what it says" school of thought, which Antonin Scalia appears to think is as if handed down by God hisself, this decision probably goes the other way.

So what did Oklahoma do? It said, "Oh, YEAH?" (PDF):

In 1916 the Oklahoma legislature, in response to the Court's decision in Guinn, enacted a new scheme for registration as a prerequisite to voting. The new scheme provided that all citizens who were qualified to vote in 1916 and who failed to register between April 30 and May 11, 1916, would be perpetually disenfranchised except those who voted in 1914. The effect of the legislation was that the whites who were on the voter lists could vote, whereas blacks who were kept from registering because of the grandfather clause would remain forever disenfranchised unless they registered during the 12-day period. In its second case before the Court, the NAACP challenged the constitutionality of the law.

The NAACP's first SCOTUS case, not incidentally, was Guinn. And the NAACP won its second case, the above-referenced Lane v. Wilson, in 1939. In the mean time, blacks had missed out on six presidential elections and, with the advent of the white primary (which is what it looks like), the chance to primary racists in the way we currently primary Democrats who vote with Bush.

But in the mean time, Texas had figured out how to disenfranchise black voters before they even got to the polls:

When the Texas legislature passed a white primary law in 1923, it thrust Texans and the Texas white primary into the center of a struggle to have the United States Supreme Court declare all white primaries unconstitutional.[..]

Houston barber Richard R. Grovey and attorneys J. Alston Atkins and Carter W. Wesley initiated their own challenge to the white primary despite the tactical objections of the NAACP. The Houstonians generated some support for their cause but lost their case, Grovey v. Townsend. On April 1, 1935, the Supreme Court unanimously decided that the Democratic party was a private organization whose state convention could determine membership qualifications. Thus, blacks had no constitutionally protected right to vote in the Democratic primary.

Grovey was, as that site indicated, overturned in 1944, and combined with Lane to give black people — on paper — equal voting rights under the law.

Grovey and Lane meant that writing laws to prevent black people from being politically active was not going to be tolerated by SCOTUS.

But there were ... other ways of doing this, and SCOTUS couldn't touch what it didn't know about:

In Decatur [Mississippi] where there were 900 white voters and no Negroes even registered, I went with [my brother] Charles, and four others [in 1946] to register at the clerk's office. I never found out until later that they visited my parents nightly after that. First, it was the whites and then their Negro message bearers. And the word was always the same:"Tell your sons to take their names off the books. Don't show up at the courthouse voting day." Then, the night before the election, Bilbo came to town and harangued the crowd in the square. "The best way to keep a nigger from the polls on election day," he told them, "is to visit him the night before." And they visited us. My brother came from Alcorn College to vote the next day. I laid off from work. The six of us gathered at my house and we walked to the polls. I'll never forget it. Not a Negro was on the streets, and when we got to the courthouse, the clerk said he wanted to talk with us. When we got into his office, some fifteen or twenty armed white men surged in behind us, men I had grown up with, had played with. We split up and went home.

(Where black weren't told to stay home, they were segregated in polls. No word yet on how many of those segregated votes were "lost.")

And yeah, maybe if Evers and his peers had sued, SCOTUS would have decided against the people who were still busily disenfranchising voters.

Or maybe Evers and his peers figured out that The Racist Powers That Be were just going to keep working at it until he and his did something about it.

And by he and his, I mean people like Medgar Evers and people like Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Mickey Schwerner:

In 1964, the disappearance and presumed murder of these activists at the beginning of Freedom Summer captivated the nation and became a landmark moment in the history of the civil rights movement. The attention focused on Mississippi, however, did not stop violence against civil rights activists or black Mississippians. Over the course of Freedom Summer, three other bodies of murdered black men were found, each of them had been lynched (Charles Moore and Henry Dee were found in mid-July in a lake off of the Mississippi River; A young man wearing a CORE t-shirt, likely a teenager named Herbert Oarsby, was found in the Big Black River). There were also approximately 70 bombings or burnings, 80 beatings, and over 1,000 arrests of activists. The Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) incident report, a single-spaced document that offered brief daily summaries, was over ten pages long.

Over the course of Freedom Summer, while looking for two white Jews, presumed dead, who had been going to the South to register voters, authorities found three black men who were not the subject of a national investigation.

Some people, by which I mean Sen. Jim Eastland, D-Miss. (see what I did there, President Bush? I named the person in question. That's called having balls. Try it some time.), reacted differently to the news of the disappearance of the three workers:

Just before 4:00 p.m., the President made contact with arch-segregationist James Eastland, a colleague from Johnson’s Senate days who was a virulent opponent of the civil rights movement. In the call, Eastland, in his thick Mississippi Delta accent, mocked the idea that any violence had occurred and gave voice to a prevalent white southern belief that the disappearance was a “publicity stunt."

Johnson kept Eastland on the speakerphone for the entirety of this conversation, literally shouting into what he called the “squawk box” for over eight minutes.

President Johnson: Jim, we’ve got three kids missing down there. What can I do about it?

Eastland: Well, I don’t know. I don’t believe there’s . . . I don’t believe there’s three missing.

President Johnson: We’ve got their parents down here.

Eastland: I believe it’s a publicity stunt. . . .

President Johnson: They say that their parents are here, and they’ve come down to see the Attorney General, and they’ve seen Burke Marshall ,and they’re going to be interviewed by the FBI—the parents. And they’ve got some newspaper people and some photographers with them and a couple of congressmen: Congressman [William] Ryan and this Republican congressman Ogden Reid, whose folks used to own the Herald-Tribune in New York.

Eastland: Yeah?

President Johnson: They want to come to the White House to see the president, and I told them that I thought that that would be better to let Lee White—who handles matters like that for me—to talk to them, and he’d go up to Ryan’s office and talk to them. I don’t know whether that’s going to be satisfactory or not.

The Attorney General called over while I was out. He thought I ought to make a statement on it. I made one at my press conference this morning. Scotty Reston said, “Mr. President, do you have any information about those three kids that disappeared in Mississippi?” I said, “The FBI has a number of men who are studying it, and we’ve asked them to spare no efforts to secure information and report to us. I’ve had no reports since breakfast, but at that time I understood that the FBI had forces in that area looking into it. Several weeks ago, I asked them to anticipate the problems that would come from this, and they have sent extra FBI personnel into the area. They have substantially augmented their personnel in the last few hours.” And that’s all I said.

Eastland: Well, that’s all right. Now, I’m going to tell you why I don’t think there’s a damn thing to it: They were put in jail in Philadelphia, in East Mississippi right next to . . . the county right next to John Stennis’s home county [Oktibbeha County], and they were going to Meridian. There’s not a Ku Klux Klan in that area; there’s not a Citizen’s Council in that area; there’s no organized White man in that area, so that’s why I think it’s a publicity stunt. Now, if it had happened in other areas, I would pay more attention to it, but I happen to know that some of these bombings where nobody gets hurt are publicity stunts.

This Nigra woman in Ruleville that’s been to Washington and testified that she was shot at 19 times is lying. Course, with anybody that gets shot at 19 times is [amused] going to get hit, and she hasn’t been shot at a time, and nobody’s tried to bother her. They let her sit in on the Democratic, in the Democratic county convention this morning.

President Johnson: Uh-huh?

Eastland: I don’t think there’s anything to it.

President Johnson: Well now, here’s what I’m calling you about as my friend: number one, they said I ought to make a statement. I’ve made this statement, and I think I’ll stand on it. Do you see any need of my going any further?

Eastland: No!

President Johnson: All right, that’s number one. Number two, they’ve suggested I see these parents. I’ve told them I thought that’d be a bad precedent. I’m going to try to get them to see an assistant of mine and get by with that if I can, so I don’t add to the fuel. Uh, do you . . . you . . . you . . . Don’t you think that’s the thing to do?

Eastland: Sure, and I think it’s going to turn out that there’s nothing to it. Now, I don’t know, but . . .


Eastland: [Unclear] it’ll take a crowd. . . . It’ll take a crowd to handle, make three men disappear.

It did take a crowd. And leave it to a racist nutter like Eastland to call a BOMBING a publicity stunt.

And leave it to racists in Neshoba County to wash over the involvement of one of their own in civil rights violations (before anyone was charged for the murders of those three):

Buford Posey was stunned when he picked up the March 13 copy of the Neshoba Democrat, a local newspaper. Prominently featured was a photo of the newly sworn-in officers of the Neshoba County Shriners club. Among the men in the photo was Cecil Price who had just taken the oath as the Shriners' vice president.

Posey knew Cecil Ray Price. He knew something that others, from Mississippi Gov. Kirk Fordice on down, wanted Mississippi and the rest of the nation to forget.

"Cecil Price was the chief deputy sheriff of Neshoba County in 1964," Posey told the World in an exclusive interview. "He led the Ku Klux Klan that lynched Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman on Sunday night, June 21, 1964.

"I have tried without success to get Mississippi newspapers to comment on this outrage of Cecil Price being elected as a high-ranking Masonic leader," Posey said.

And for those of you who were expecting me to talk about wonderful the FBI was in dealing with this, I'm going to praise the bureau just as much for this as I would praise Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy for how wonderfully he defended the law when black people were arrested for riding in buses in the South.

"The murders took place on a Sunday night, June 21, 1964 on Rock Cut Road, right off Highway 19. I was sitting home that night. It was late, 2 o'clock or something like that, and I received a call. I recognized the voice at once."

The caller was Edgar Ray Killen, the "chaplain" of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. "We took care of your three friends tonight and you're next," Killen told Posey.

Posey had gone to Meridian the week before and talked to Schwerner, the oldest of the three murdered workers. "I told them to be careful. 'The Klan has sentenced you to death. You know the sheriffs up there, Lawrence Rainey and Cecil Ray Price, are Klan members.'"

The morning after the call from Killen, Posey contacted the FBI, first in Jackson and then New Orleans. "I told them I was a civil rights worker, who I worked for and what had happened. I told them the preachers' name and that I thought the sheriff's office was involved in the murder."

The FBI didn't act on Posey's tip.

(Kennedy, of course, is the man who struck a deal with Southern law enforcement whereby Freedom Riders were arrested for not breaking the law, then fined and returned safe and sound, to the land where the law actually applied. Kennedy asked the Freedom Riders to stop riding for freedom because they were embarrassing him. The riders declined, citing, y'know, the fact that failure to enforce the law on Kennedy's part did not constitute an actual offense on theirs.)

We are 93 years removed from Guinn, 43 years removed from the Voting Rights Act, two weeks removed from our first major-party black candidate for president of the United States of America.

So why bring up this history? Why reopen old wounds?

Because nobody's teaching this history. You're not learning it in school or in articles on voting rights, civil rights, anything. I went to three colleges, captained two quiz bowl teams (vaguely like Jeopardy) and got two college degrees, and my introduction to Guinn was mapping late June's topics for this series.

Civil rights education is insufficient. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 are presented, yes, as the result of a struggle between the future and the past, but nowhere are Guinn and Grovey mentioned. Just so, Powell v. Alabama, which paved the way for Miranda, might as well not exist, for all people know about it. And you all know about Brown, but can you tell me anything about Hocutt v. Wilson?

We are more freely and often taught more about the height of the temperance movement than we do about civil rights litigation history. By that measure, being allowed to get drunk is more important to historians than being allowed to vote freely.

If that isn't sobering, I don't know what is.