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.