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Georgia has an ugly history of taking voting rights from Black voters. The state just did it again, with the new law signed by Governor Brian Kemp (R) last month.
Since then, voting rights activists have upped the pressure on corporate donors to the Republican lawmakers that championed the regressive law, which disgracefully makes it a crime to offer food or water to a voter waiting in line to vote. This is likely to impact Black voters the hardest for the simple and well-publicized reason that, in recent elections, it’s the state’s Black voters who have been caught in hours-long lines waiting to vote.
The new Georgia law was enacted after presidential candidate Donald Trump lost Georgia in 2020 and after Georgia elected two Democrats, including African American Senator Raphael Warnock, in 2021. As the state trends purple, Republicans seem to want to hobble the voters who voted in ways they dislike.
Republicans have decried what they characterize as alarmism among those who oppose the law — especially as a growing number of corporations have come out against it. But today’s voting rights activists are right to see today’s racist disenfranchisement for what it is. They know Georgia history. And this is not the first time Georgia has disenfranchised Black voters following a Black person’s electoral success.
After the American Civil War, even before the 15th Amendment was adopted, newly freed Black men in the south registered to vote and voted. They helped elect Grant President in 1868 and they sent Black men to Congress in 1870 & 1871 from Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, South Carolina and Georgia. During Black Reconstruction, Black men also served in Congress from North Carolina, Virginia, and Louisiana. This was on top of approximately 2,000 Black men who were elected to state and local offices during the time.
In Georgia, 33 Black members of the General Assembly were the first to be elected to that state’s legislature in 1868. These men are often referred to as the “Original 33.” But they were forced out of the legislature even though the legislature was controlled by radical Republicans, their party. The effort to expel was led by Democrats, but a sufficient number of Republicans joined in the vote. Also outcome-determinative was the fact that the Speaker of the House R.L. McWhorter ruled that the Black legislators could not vote on their own expulsion. One of the African Americans expelled was Senator Henry McNeal Turner, who gave a fiery and defiant speech that asked “Am I a man? If I am such, I claim the rights of a man.”
Shortly thereafter, in September 1868, one of the expelled Black lawmakers Philip Joiner led a political march from Albany to Camilla, Georgia. When the group walked into the town square of Camilla, white residents opened fire. During the massacre in Camilla, at least 14 were killed and a Republican candidate for Congress was injured. This event may have scared many Black people away from voting that fall.
Confederate states were readmitted to the union between 1866 and 1870. Georgia was unique in that it had to be admitted twice. Georgia was first readmitted in 1868. But, after the expulsion of the Original 33, Congress refused to seat its representatives. The African American Georgia legislators were only restored to office with the help of federal troops and as a condition to be readmitted to the union in 1870. Later some of these lawmakers were killed in acts of racial political violence. In addition to political violence, Georgia used the legal system to push Black people out of the electorate.
Between 1868 and 1907, 58 Black men served in the Georgia legislature. What happened in 1908? That was the year that Georgia followed a pattern of many southern states and amended their state constitution in a way that would disenfranchise Black voters — including literacy tests and grandfather clauses. Without Black voters, Black members of the legislature also disappeared until the Voting Rights Act restored the franchise to Black voters.
If this history is new to you, there could be a reason. According to Professor Edmund Drago, when official biographies of members of the Georgia legislature were first written, the author Alexander St. Clair-Abrams purposefully excluded the Black members claiming it would have been absurd “to have written [about] the lives of men who were but yesterday our slaves[.]”
With this dark history as context, in reaction to Georgia’s new 2021 regressive voting law, Major League Baseball has moved the All Star Game out of the state in protest. This is just the latest in reactions from corporate America. Major League Baseball doesn’t sit outside of politics. They have given $743,072 to political party committees including $165,000 to the U.S. Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and $165,000 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Coca-Cola’s CEO hit the airways to decry the new Georgia law. Coca-Cola is very active in politics. The company has given $794,273 to the Georgia Democratic Party and $848,621 to the Georgia Republican Party. Delta also criticized the new law. Delta has given $233,880 to the Georgia Republican Party and $196,188 to the Georgia Democratic Party. Given that these firms have been betting on red and blue simultaneously, corporations are unlikely to be able to solve Georgia’s democratic problems unilaterally.
Meanwhile Georgia’s Republican Governor Brian Kemp doubled down in defense of the new regressive voting law declaring on April 3, 2021 that the state would not be “bullied” by threats to boycott it. At this point Georgia shows no signs of repenting or reversing course on voting rights.
What may save Georgia’s voting rights today is action at the federal level from Congress. The Original 33 Black members of the Georgia legislature only got their seats back after federal intervention. Arguably, today Georgia will only get improved voting rights if Congress enacts new protections like the For the People Act (H.R.1/S.1), which provides a floor of protections for voting rights nationwide that states could not abridge.
Unfortunately, history doesn’t just repeat, it rhymes.
Ciara Torres-Spelliscy is a law professor at Stetson Law, a fellow at the Brennan Center and the author of the book, Political Brands.