Stacey Abrams Could Have as Much Impact on 2020 as Kamala HarrisRoundup
tags: Reconstruction, Democratic Party, voting rights, 2020 Election, Stacy Abrams
Liette Gidlow is associate professor of history at Wayne State University in Detroit, and author of The Big Vote: Gender, Consumer Culture, and the Politics of Exclusion, 1890s-1920s (Johns Hopkins University Press) and contributor to Suffrage at 100: Women in American Politics since 1920.
Today, the focus of politics is Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), Joe Biden’s newly selected running mate. But one of the vice-presidential runners-up, Stacey Abrams, may play a significant role in the outcome of the election. Though Abrams did not end up on the Democratic ticket, her work to boost African American voter participation and ensure fair elections in Georgia and across the country has already changed the terrain on which the upcoming presidential election will be fought.
Since 2018, Abrams’s election watchdog and voter mobilization group, Fair Fight Action, has worked to counteract a torrent of disfranchisement efforts targeting African American voters unleashed by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby v. Holder decision. Though the scale of Fair Fight’s work, including voter protection efforts in 18 states, is noteworthy, its purpose is not new: southern Black women have been working to protect voting rights, for themselves and others, ever since most African American women first gained the franchise in 1920, when the 19th Amendment was approved.
Black men in Virginia and through most of the South had been proud and active voters in the period after the Civil War. Scholars estimate that thanks to the Union Army and then the 15th Amendment, 90 percent of southern Black men cast ballots. Their votes were powerful, helping to elect thousands of Black officeholders, including 16 members of Congress.
One of them was John Mercer Langston, who was elected to the House in 1890 after serving as the president of the Virginia Normal and Industrial Institute (today, Virginia State University), the state’s land grant college for African Americans, founded in 1882.
Langston’s experience showed the problems that southern Black voters faced then. Those in his district were singled out to wait in long lines, and, contrary to custom, his backers were not permitted to witness the tabulation of the ballots. When the Democratic vote counters declared that he had lost by a few hundred votes, Langston, a Republican, contested the results before the House. After protracted wrangling in which Democratic members walked out to try to prevent a quorum, Langston was finally seated as the representative from Virginia’s 4th District.
Using those tactics and worse, white supremacists in the South succeeded at the end of the 19th century in stripping Black men of their votes. In that era, as in our own, partisanship increasingly aligned with race as Democratic “redeemers” and “readjusters” captured power in Southern states and drove Republicans — both Black and White — out of the electorate and sometimes out of town.
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