Tuesday, October 28, 2008

An absentee voting story

Democratic Party strategist Ed Kilgore reports that the Obama campaign's remarkably successful encouragement of early voting is generating a backlash in Georgia.

Heavy early voting has been a regular local news story in Georgia for several weeks now, and the visuals, along with much of the commentary, has made the disproportionate turnout of African-Americans a centerpiece. And among conservative white folk I've talked to, a sense of genuine racial panic seems to be setting in, fed, of course, by the McCain-Palin campaign's incessant references to Obama's scary character and ideology.

This observation reminded me of a story from an absorbing book I've recently discovered, The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation. Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff tell the story of the Civil Rights era from the point of view of the reporters who covered it, first from the Black press, and later, ironically, in the white media whose white reporters had a better chance of surviving racist violence than their Black counterparts.

While the brave attempts of Mississippi Blacks to register to vote in the summer of 1964 are sometimes remembered, Roberts and Klibanoff recount much earlier efforts to increase Black registration that ended in violent repression. In particular, the story of Lamar Smith's early work in Lincoln County presents a counterpoint to this season's campaign to encourage early and absentee voting. In this Black belt town, hardly any African Americans were registered in 1955. Smith, a farmer and a veteran of World War II, was able to encourage some local Black people to risk threats and humiliation to register. He also encouraged them to vote absentee, so they didn't have to show themselves at the courthouse and risk white violence on Election Day.

County authorities were alarmed when the number of absentee voters jumped from about 600 to 1000 in one primary. A group of white men accosted Lamar Smith at midday on a Saturday in the center of the town of Brookhaven -- and shot him dead. According to The Race Beat, "the Sheriff focused not on who had killed Smith, but on whether Smith's absentee ballot operation had been legal." White newspapers didn't ask questions about the reasons for the shooting. To the Black community, Smith died a hero; to the incurious white world, he was a cipher, a schemer, and dismissed as an aging bootlegger.

Fifty-three years later, we are about to elect a Black president -- and there is a minority segment of our society that somehow fears that an enthusiastic early and absentee voting effort must be sinister. Many Republicans cling to various devices -- registration hurdles, complex rules, excessive identification requirements -- that tap into those fears. It's still about the fear that if everyone really votes, traditional power arrangements will crumble. But just maybe, slightly to our own surprise, we are about to take a leap into a different future.


Damon said...

I've been predicting to my friends for weeks that Georgia is going to be the shocker of the election next Tuesday. Early voting numbers certainly seem to support the fact that voters are not allowing the voter ID laws in GA to hinder them too much. I hope. I know it's only anecdotal.

If Georgia goes for Obama, I think it would be a major signal to the country that the crap we've put up with for the past 8 years, and 20 of the last 28, is no longer what America wants. Hatred and bigotry are hopefully on life support right now and maybe we can pull the plug next Tuesday.

I hope.

Darlene said...

Racism is the ugliest blot on the American image. I hope the new generation will end this despicable hatred once and for all, but I fear that racist parents have indoctrinated enough children that it will not disappear for another generation.

Naomi said...

My hope is the Obama presidency puts mental health--prevention and treatment--on the front burner along with education. Racism is about anger plus ignorance.

Pamela said...

Hear, hear to all the comments. And thanks, Jan, for all your thoughtful, informed posts that keep me on my toes and on track during this election.

Kay Dennison said...

Excellent post, as usual, Jan! I remember those dread days of the 60s when many heinous acts took place. I had truly hoped that we were beyond that but sadly, bigotry is alive and well among certain ethnic and religious groups. The God I believe in doesn't discriminate in His love for us. I am having a hard time with Jesus' admonition to "love one another as I have loved you."

I keep reminding myself that I can love them without liking these so-called Christians.

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