BALLOT BOX HIJINKS: From “Three-fifths a Person” to a Black Man in the White House

“Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.”   Frederick Douglass 


Prudent minds and discerning hearts, perhaps for most Americans, are long past being shocked at the sickening dribble of politicized race-baiting and divisive rhetoric concerning our tall, lanky and cool-headed Commander-in-Chief, President Barack Obama, whose speeches media pundits often describe as Lincolnesque

But, when the whiny Republican-generated sarcasm began to fan the flames of fictional voter fraud insinuations, igniting counter-productive voter law changes, I knew that their fake ranting would throw the entire election-year dialogue way off course, unless some appreciation existed for the cultural and legal backdrop of Lincoln’s time.

Lincoln’s Landscape

In his prophetic speech concerning “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” at the Illinois Republican Convention (June 16, 1858), Abraham Lincoln painted his vision of why this nation would eventually become united. That was over 150 years ago when America’s legal landscape and cultural mindset routinely denied justice and dignity to African-Americans, as well as others within the poor-and-downtrodden grouping of the Christian idiom, “the least of these,” our ancestral brethren and fellow countrymen. 

Archives record Lincoln as musing, “…I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved; I do not expect the house to fall; but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other…” Four years later, as president, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

Regardless of the extenuating political circumstances which inspired his comments, one has to marvel at the grit and spunk required for a white guy, politician or not, to verbalize such feelings at a time when, in the eyes of the law, black people were not considered to be full human beings. They were considered as “three-fifths of a person,” instead.   

Back then, before the power of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution refashioned our legal landscaping, blacks could not vote, could not own property, could not own firearms, could not obtain good paying jobs, could not obtain a good education and could not even testify in court against whites. Along with poor whites, they did not posses any of the same benefits or rights to justice that were routinely granted to the genteel white citizenry.

Affective Black Phobia

In my opinion, it wasn’t too far removed the from mindset, coupled with an acquired fear of black people, by some, which paved the road to the lingering racism and shameful motives by others, today, to play legislative games with the ballot box and selectively tinker with established methods of simplifying the process of voting. Incredulously, this has occurred at times when our nation is often invited to monitor elections for electoral fraud in other countries.  

But, the way I see it: 

IF you could peel back the scabs of racism in the United States, and examine the oozing sores of an inconsistent justice system, you might begin to feel the despair and frustrations of many black families from living during the period when the U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice, Roger B. Taney, in the Court’s majority opinion (a.k.a., the “Dred Scott Decision“), wrote that the political leaders who framed the U.S. Constitution felt that black people “…had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever profit could be made by it.” (Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393, 1857)

IF you could see the morphed pre-Civil War reasoning of white Southerners behind the economic thinking associated with the declining “benefits” of using of slaves as free labor, and their fear for encroaching social class divisions, you might begin to see some of the despair and frustrations that many whites wrestled with during the confusing pro-slavery morality of the times. And, the spiraling fear of slave rebellion sweeping across the country, only added to their woes.

IF you could see or feel any of this, in my opinion, you may still never grasp the shadowy reasons why race and the voting rights are still a top-of-the-chart, post-Civil Rights issue, today. But, it may give you a clue to why today’s dwindling sense of white privilege and superiority seems to be stoking the fires of fear and division with bizarre strategies to prevent or discourage Americans from exercising their right to vote.    

IF you reach back far enough into our history’s ugly episodes of suppressing the black vote, you may even get a sense of why the Republican Party’s cynical legislation, earmarked for changing various voter laws, seems so far out of synch with progressive attitudes in the Democratic Party, as new racial tensions fills the air. It’s the stuff which has already shaped the electoral landscape and skewed the discord within the 2012 Presidential Election campaigning.  It’s also part of the logic fallacies associated with the oft-stated goal of the Republican Party’s Minority Leader of the Senate (“Mitch” McConnell) to limit President Obama to serving only one term.

Whitewashing the Black Codes

Surely, all Republicans are not racist, nor wedded to the Grand Old Party’s (GOP) lunatic fringe which seems bent on putting forth perverted beliefs and trumped-up distortions concerning voter fraud and voting rights. But, the combined effect of recent state voting law restrictions seem more in line with thinking which existed when Southern legislatures passed “Black Codes” (between 1800 and 1866, similar to Antebellum Slave Codes) to control the behavior of “Negro” or black Americans. According to historian, John Hope Franklin, these were “…to insure their role as a laboring force in the South.” (“From Slavery to Freedom:  A History of Negro Americans,” by Franklin,  Alfred A Knopf, Inc., Pub.).

In some states, black slaves or ex-slaves could only work in agriculture or as domestic servants.  Some codes made it illegal for blacks to live in cities or possess firearms. It also denied them the right to vote.  Franklin observed that “The control of blacks by white employers was about as great as that which slaveholders had exercised.”  Blacks were not allowed to testify in court, except in cases involving their own race. And, there was “no indication that in the future they could look forward to full citizenship and participation in a democracy.”

Cousin to these mandates, “Jim Crow” laws became rampant after “Black Codes” were declared unconstitutional.  These were state and local laws, enacted during the 90-year period after 1876. They were designed to keep the races separate and maintain the white supremacist status quo. Racial inequality was central to their belief system. And, it remains so today for those that cling to this antiquated mindset. Blacks were excluded from political party primaries, allowing whites the freedom to plot political strategies behind closed doors, further disenfranchising blacks and citizenship rights.

Constitutional Course Correction 

The 13th Amendment to the Constitution, added in 1865, made slavery illegal.  History notes that many states complied with the laws they passed. But, many whites and southern states fought against them and all laws which spelled any notion of equal opportunity. Slave owners still desired the economic benefits of free slave labor, sexual experimentation and human breeding which provided the nation’s cheap labor force. They feared that freeing slaves would eliminate those advantages.

The 14th Amendment, added in 1868, was to help protect the rights of the newly freed slave.  Simply put, it considered all persons born within the boundaries of the United States as natural citizens with the same rights as all other Americans. It prohibited states from making or enforcing laws which took away a citizen’s civil rights, in an environment where voting information, and the power associated with voting, was something many whites felt should be kept away from black people. 

The 15th Amendment, added in 1870, was specifically aimed at protecting the voting rights of African-Americans. It thwarted government efforts to refuse anyone their right to vote because of their race or color- or, previous status as a slave. This was at a time in which many blacks were becoming aware of the political power of the vote, in the wake of the Reconstruction Act, of 1867 and 1868, designed “…for the more efficient Government of the Rebel States,” according to historical archives. Yet, women of all races were still denied the right to vote, until the 19th Amendment was added in 1920.

White Supremacy Backlash

But, it was also a time in which barriers to black voting surfaced in the form of a “Poll Tax”- to be paid before voting- and reading and writing tests were to be required of former slaves and groups of people who were previously denied an education. In the South, the “Poll Tax” and so-called “Literacy Tests” were later joined by a complex array of voter suppression techniques, including scare tactics within the sheet-cloaked bigotry of the pea-brained terrorist, Ku Klux Klan, aimed at disenfranchising blacks and poor whites. This included “Residency Requirements” and schemes in the timing of voter registration, as it related to election dates and locations, as well as “Felony Disenfranchisement,” for crimes committed by blacks.

In the South, “Jim Crow Laws” replaced the “Black Codes,” once used within the political shenanigans to reinstate slavery in the aftermath of the Civil War before they were declared unconstitutional and removed during the Reconstruction period. 

Eventually, “Jim Crow Laws” were declared unconstitutional and removed, too. These were laws which shaped the political landscapes between 1876 and 1965.  They legalized racial segregation in all public facilities in the South, where I was born and raised. They were politicized edicts of the Confederacy which promoted a twisted ideology of equality under the cloak of a stated “separate but equal” status for African-Americans.

This fake ideology, promoting white supremacy and white political power- not always just in the South- led to many social, economic and educational disadvantages for black people, poor whites and other racial minorities in general. In my opinion, it forever shackled the thinking and behavior of individuals raised during that time, or on the fringe of its cultural landscaping, for generations to come. More important, it impacted what families taught their kids and kin behind closed doors. It’s a cancer, surely. Yet, I feel it’s a cancer with a cure.

In the Wake of Turbulence

Old “Jim Crow” stumbled around in the approaching storm clouds of the Civil Rights Movement, flapped his freakish, defiant wings once more and flew off into the sunset with the U.S. Supreme Court’s unanimous (9-0) decision, Brown v. Board of Education, in 1954, proclaiming separate public schools for blacks and whites were unconstitutional, based on a rule violation of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

It may have been a blessing in disguise to live through the school desegregation years, including the racial turbulence which followed. It beefed up our own perspectives of certain moral or inalienable rights, as well as inescapable moral wrongs which still needed to be addressed, in our schools, in our communities and in our courts. But, the many brave, no-nonsense white guys, and other racial groups, that I came into contact with, in athletics, during military service and in business, provided a more realistic perspective of what a “real American” looks like and how they behave– polar opposites to apparent, current GOP leadership demographics. It also helped in what we taught our own kids, now adults with kids, themselves. 

The year I graduated from high school and joined the U.S. Navy, following Cuba’s Bay of Pigs Invasion, in 1961, the current President of the United States, Barack Hussein Obama, was born (August 4, 1961) in Honolulu, Hawaii, two years after Hawaii became the 50th state of the nation. His legacy is already history.

Three years later, the last of the “Jim Crow Laws” were overruled with the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and buried with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Standing Where Lincoln Stood

Much has happened since.  But, a mere 42 years later, an audacious Senator Barack Obama (D-ILL), armed with years of unheralded civil rights advocacy and voter registration work in the tough streets and alleys of Chicago, as well as teaching Constitutional Law at the University of Chicago, stood where Lincoln once stood in calling for an end to slavery and disunity.  In the icy cold winds of February 2007, facing an energetic crowd of 16,000 outside Springfield, Illinois’ Historic Old State Capitol building, he boldly announced that he would seek the 2008 Democratic nomination for president of the United States.

That was three years in the wake of his famous and inspiring keynote address to the Democratic National Convention (in Boston, MA) and he admitted to “a certain presumptuousness in this, a certain audacity” to attempt to do what Lincoln did in healing a divided nation.

But, following his election, on the day of his inauguration, January 20, 2009, certain political forces were already meeting in secret, at a private dinner, with the main course being obstruction plots to ensure his administration’s failure. Within the year following, vile voter disenfranchisement activities began oozing to the surface, like raw sewage seeping from a broken sewer pipe.

Yet, according to a recent analysis by the Huffington Post News, “State officials in key presidential battleground states have found only a tiny fraction of the illegal voters they initially suspected existed. Searches in Colorado and Florida have yielded numbers that amount to less than one-tenth of 1 percent of all registered voters in either state” (“Voter Purges Turn Up Little Evidence Of Fraud Despite Republican Insistence,” Ivan Moreno, September 24, 2012).  However, the Brennan Center for Justice (July 23, 2012) says some 5 million eligible voters could find it more difficult to vote, due to new restrictive voter laws which fall heavily on minorities, the elderly, the disabled, students and low-income Americans.

Lipstick on a Pig?

That’s huge!  Even more astounding are the some 90 million individuals, eligible to vote but remain unregistered for a variety of reasons (“Why 90 million Americans won’t vote in November,” by Susan Page, USA Today, August 15, 2012).  Imagine what might happen if these subversive voter law changes finally ticked them off enough to register!

Voter suppression may not have been what President Obama was referring to when he artfully- or, inartfully- commented on his opponent’s change mantra, in September 2008, during the race for the White House Oval Office, saying You know … you can put lipstick on a pig.  It’s still a pig.”  

On the other hand, more artfully, I can still hear my grandpa, a hog farmer, quipping his oft-quoted phrase, “If it looks like a duck, quacks and smells like a duck, with duck droppings, it’s probably a doggone duck….” But, given the resurgence of irrational fear and bizarre political landscaping, voter suppression looks like the pig in lipstick, today, in my opinion.

Racism is often hard to see, pure and simple. A pig in lipstick is not!  So, if you can see one coming, you still have options:  Get out of its way, ignore it or consult a Psychiatrist- or, an Optometrist!  Whatever you decide, please do so well before the voter registration deadline in your state (which varies by state).

It’s amazing how the landscapes of yesteryear give added perspectives to the caustic, crippling wave of events still lashing about, today, as Tuesday, November 6, 2012 approaches. That’s the day, it seems to me, that America’s prudent minds and discerning hearts will likely return a black man to this nation’s revered White House.

Backstreet Djeli, w.d.

About William "Duke" Smither (a.k.a., "Backstreet D'jeli")

William "Duke" Smither, author of “BACKROADS TO 'BETHLEHEM': Odysseys of the Maroon Warrior, in the Shadows of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade,” is a Frankfort Kentucky native; Richmond Virginia resident. Retired Public Utility Sr. Investigator and nuclear site worker, Married w/ 3 children and 6 grandchildren; U.S. Navy Viet Nam Era & Cuban Missile Crisis Veteran; Member of "Cuban Blockade Survivors" & The American Legion; B.S. Degree (Business Mgmt) w/ independent studies in Ancient African History and African-American History. Post-graduate studies in Criminal Justice Administration. Former Sports & Feature writer for the weekly Richmond Afro-American Newspaper, during Freshman year of college. Retirement activities include: Freelance writer, playwright, actor and director of faith-based community theater productions; founder of "Backstreet's Blog" ("Talking Drum Dialogues") at and former contributing writer for "BlackPast.Org," the international, on-line reference center for African American History. His debut novel, “BACKROADS TO 'BETHLEHEM': Odysseys of the Maroon Warrior…,” is the first installment of a possible historical-fiction trilogy. A second installment ["Passage(s) to Saint-Domingue...."] is pending completion.