"Crack Mississippi, and you crack the whole South."
July 23, 2014 11:29 PM   Subscribe

In 1964, less than 7% of Mississippi’s African Americans were registered to vote, compared to between 50 and 70% in other southern states. In many rural counties, African Americans made up the majority of the population and the segregationist white establishment was prepared to use any means necessary to keep them away from the polls and out of elected office. As Mississippian William Winter recalls, “A lot of white people thought that African Americans in the South would literally take over and white people would have to move, would have to get out of the state.”
This summer fifty years ago well over a thousand volunteers went to Mississippi to help register as many African-Americans as possible to vote, in the Freedom Summer, which would end with at least seven people murdered for their support for the campaign. For PBS's American Experience series, director Stanley Nelson has created a movie about the campaign, which you can watch online. A transcript, introduction and other resources are also available.
posted by MartinWisse (10 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Slate recently posted a literacy test from Louisiana from the 1960s. It's mind-boggling. There were laws that made it illegal to teach slaves how to read—there isn't even a pretense for how that is supposed to be necessary or good for anyone; it's just patently oppressive.
posted by koavf at 12:16 AM on July 24, 2014

The literacy tests were outrageous but were just one skirmish in this battle. After being registered to vote, the person had to go to the polling place which was operated and managed by back room cronies of the local movers and shakers who specialized in intimidation thinly disguised as 'helpfulness'. Everybody knew who each voter worked for and what their weaknesses and needs were. Pressure was skillfully applied long before election day. The operatives were simply reminders and reinforcers.

When, as a new bride, I first encountered the rural Southern polling place, I asked for my ballot and was told with a blush and a stammer that my husband had already voted for me. I wonder if the people who worked for some of the local bosses ever had any more choice in casting their votes than that. Some late night story-telling did touch on other voting strategies, times when replacing ballots or losing ballots had to happen. There were places where the system was completely rigged. I wonder how much actual freedom there is in the rural South even today.
posted by Anitanola at 2:20 AM on July 24, 2014 [28 favorites]

Are there stats available for the current registration rates?
posted by pugg at 4:58 AM on July 24, 2014

Remember that the literacy tests were never supposed to be applied to everyone, it was up to the discretion of the voting officials to require a potential voter to take the test or not if **in the judgement of the official** there was some question about the education of the voter.

Naturally only black voters (and the occasional known white race traitor) ever had to take the test.

@pugg: Per the US Census, blacks are registered to vote at about the same percentage as whites, with 74.1% of blacks eligible to vote being registered to do so. And black voter turnout a bit higher than white voter turnout. https://www.census.gov/hhes/www/socdemo/voting/publications/p20/2010/tables.html

I think one issue is "eligible to vote", remember that blacks are disproportionately targeted in the War on Drugs, and as such a vastly higher percentage of blacks are stripped of the right to vote than whites are. Mississippi is one of the states where a felony conviction can result in the convicted person being rendered ineligible to vote forever, which targets mainly blacks. In Mississippi 182,814 voters are disenfranchised due to this, most of them black. That amounts to about 8.24% of the state's voting age population. http://felonvoting.procon.org/view.resource.php?resourceID=000287

In Mississippi close to 30% of black men are disenfranchised due to felony convictions. http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/story?id=121724

Studies have shown that Republicans are quite diligent about suppressing the vote in majority Democratic areas, and that the Democrats do not reciprocate.

Ohio was in the news for a particularly egregious example of this when Republicans expanded early voting hours in majority Republican counties, but decreased early voting hours in majority Democratic counties. http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2012/08/10/670441/ohio-limits-early-voting-hours-in-democratic-counties-expands-in-republican-counties/

And today we get the lovely addition of voter ID laws. As can be seen in figure 1 here: http://www.brennancenter.org/publication/challenge-obtaining-voter-identification in Mississippi the offices which can issue ID to vote with have had hours cut in majority black areas and are open at inconvenient times for working people.

Expect to see the number of registered, but ineligible to vote due to lack of ID, blacks increase dramatically.
posted by sotonohito at 7:06 AM on July 24, 2014 [9 favorites]

I watched that Freedom Summer documentary a few weeks ago. It's well worth your time. One of the things I liked best was the focus on the black activists who were running the show: it wasn't a case of do-gooder white Northerners deciding to run a voter registration drive. It was the black activists and managers who decided to reach out to Northern students, hoping to get national attention, and there was a lot of divisiveness within the community about it, at least at first.

I also liked that the film-makers didn't allow the narrative to be about the white students: they spent just as much time on Chaney as the other missing activists, and interviewed a lot of surviving black activists.

One thing I hadn't known about the voter registration issue is that even if you passed the literacy test, the county clerk would publish your name in the local paper, so everyone would know who was trying to vote. It was a perfect way to keep people from trying to exercise their franchise -- of what value is a secret ballot if your employer knows you're trying to vote and can fire you for it?
posted by suelac at 8:14 AM on July 24, 2014 [3 favorites]

I watched this when it aired and if you've not seen it, it's simply stunning. It's worth turning off your phone, closing your laptop, and giving your full attention for an hour.
posted by ob1quixote at 9:30 AM on July 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have never been able to wrap my head around the notion that convicted of a felony = never allowed to vote again.

Didn't you guys have something to say about no taxation without representation a while back?
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:41 AM on July 24, 2014

Just nth-ing how really amazing the Freedom Summer documentary was and that you absolutely should watch it.
posted by misskaz at 9:49 AM on July 24, 2014

Don't miss the American Experience on the Freedom Riders too.

Brave people!
posted by zangpo at 10:09 AM on July 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

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