*Published with the generous permission of David Pepper. Read and watch his excellent work at Pepperspectives.
By David Pepper
As I review and teach the early history of voting rights in America, I often imagine the individual lives led amid the struggle. And perhaps due to my fiction writing, I try to put myself into an individual’s shoes, and imagine his or her life play out. That’s when all the history and law become real to me.
And one “life” I can’t stop thinking about is that of a Black Southern teenager in the mid-1870s. A young man. It also happens to be a life—and a generation—that gets erased if those trying to censor history get their way. So we can’t let them….
As best we can, let’s imagine what this young American’s life looks like to start, and what it becomes. The general contours, at least: the state of politics and democracy playing out around him, and how it affects him throughout his life.
In the 1870s, this teen comes of age in a world where Black men are registered and voting in big numbers. Most of the men in his life vote. In some states, more Black men are registered to vote than White men. Black turnout rises as high as 60% in presidential elections, so election day is busy and boisterous in his community.
But the elections that leave the greatest impression on him aren’t the ones for President. Because due to the high level of Black participation, this teen grows up seeing and looking up to Black officeholders at almost every level, including in his own community. He sees Black mayors and sheriffs, state representatives and judges, even State Supreme Court justices, statehouse speakers, lieutenant governors and members of Congress. Black men, some only years older than he is, are community leaders at every level. They speak out on important issues and are making important decisions at each of those levels. And in his state and others, since they are part of the majority, their decisions take effect. They have power, and they use it to represent him.
I would never want to understate the racism, risk of violence and other challenges this teenager faces in daily life, but when it comes to participation in the nation’s, state’s and his community’s democracy, things at least look to be moving in a good direction. And he has reasons to be optimistic that they’ll get even better, because, after all, people who represent him are the ones in power. And in only a few years, he and his generation will get to vote for them as well; he even assumes some of his peers—maybe even him—will themselves go on to serve in public office. And when they do, they will keep pushing for things to get better.
Another major factor bolsters his confidence. Studying and remembering recent history, this teen knows that the United States government will protect him and his community when other people try to keep them from participating. Once, the United States government demanded that, to rejoin the country, his and other Southern states had to both ratify the Fourteenth Amendment (which protected his rights in many ways) and enfranchise recently freed slaves, like his father and grandfather. So those states complied, which is why his grandfather and father and other adults he knows now vote in every election. Later, President Grant used the full force of the federal government to stop violent efforts to keep them from voting. He remembers seeing those federal troops arrive, knowing they were there to protect him. That image remains with him today, a firm reminder that the national government will stand against those in his community and his state—and he knows exactly who some of them are—who seek to undermine his rights as an American. The rights written in the American Constitution.
But as our teen ages just a few years, things change.
As he and his peers come of age and try to vote or register through the 1880s and 1890s, they encounter a growing maze of new rules and obstacles—some even written into new state Constitutions emerging from meetings where the elected leaders who represented him were not included. And the reason given for the new obstacles is that Black voters like him are either not intelligent enough to vote or serve in government, or that they are so intelligent they have figured out how to game the system through “voter fraud.” So he knows the reasons being given make no sense.
For example, in his 20s, this young man is required to answer a set of challenging questions as he tries to register to vote, even when he’s voted before. Questions of fact or history or law, or guessing how many jelly beans are in a big jar, or an equally absurd logic game, or questions that he’d been told reflect on his “character.” And if he fails he can’t vote. He feels like he got the answers right, but afterward, he’s told he failed. Almost everyone he knows also fails, including the smartest people he knows. His grandfather, who struggles to read but has voted for years, fails.
But his White neighbor who is less literate than he is, knows less history, is less involved in politics….he doesn’t even have to take the test. He gets to register and vote because his grandfather was registered to vote in 1864, when of course our young man’s grandfather wasn’t registered while still enslaved. Meaning he must take a test that he and everyone he knows inevitably fail, but that the White neighbor does not.
This young man also encounters other obstacles to voting. One time, as he tries to vote, he’s asked to display his receipt from paying the tax that was due six months before the election. He didn’t know about the tax, so he has no receipt, so he can’t vote. The next year, when he tries to pay that tax by the deadline six months before the next election, he’s told the tax includes the total of all the amounts from prior years he didn’t know he had to pay. The money he’s brought is nowhere near that amount.
A few years later, he finds himself excluded in another way. While Republicans and Democrats were evenly matched when he was a teen, and he and almost everyone he knows was a Republican due to Lincoln and Grant and those who protected his right to vote back then, the strength of the Republicans fades as he grows older, in part because so few Black voters are unable to vote. Soon, the only people who are in office are the Democrats who worked so hard to exclude him. But that means that the only elections that matter are Democratic primaries—whoever wins those will win the office every time. And in the state where he lives, he is barred by the Democratic Party from voting in the primary. Not because he won’t pay a tax or won’t pass a test, but just because he’s Black. It’s part of the formal rules! So in the only election that matters for decades of his life, he can’t participate at all.
Despite all those obstacles, the most real obstacle he feels is the threat of violence that he and other Black voters face when they try to participate. When they try to register, when they try to pass that test, they are harassed. Their boss at work is called. Or they are attacked outright. Or worse. And they have seen too many times that even when actual violence takes place, none of the perpetrators are ever held accountable even though people know exactly who they are.
And this young man of course begins asking himself: why should I show up to take a test I know I will fail, or pay that cumulative tax I can’t afford, or vote in an election that is predetermined because the winner off the whites-only Democratic primary will inevitably win, all while filling out a form revealing all my private and employment information, when to do so risks my own safety, that of my new family, and my job and income? So like many others he knows, he stops trying to vote altogether.
And another factor in his decision is that the confidence he had as a teenager that the federal government would protect him has disappeared. By the late 1870s, the federal troops there to safeguard elections and Black voters leave, because of a political deal struck among politicians in Washington as they fought over who should be president. And in 1890, one final effort in Congress to protect against the ever growing violence fails. The law had the majority of votes it needed to pass, but by way of a maneuver called the filibuster, the politicians in the states doing all the harm were somehow able to stop it even though they were outnumbered. After that, from what he could see, the entire effort to protect him and his peers just stopped. Apparently other things become more important than keeping in place the democracy he’d witnessed as a teenager. But he can’t imagine what could be more important.
Finally, some of the most prominent community leaders he knows and looks up to organize lawsuits to enforce the language of the Constitutional Amendments he’d studied in school—the ones his teachers and community elders assured him meant that his and other states could not deny him his right to vote. The ones the federal government had enforced when he was young.
But the most powerful Court in America will declare again and again that those words he had studied don’t mean what he had been told they mean, or what they still appear to mean; that it’s okay that he not be allowed to vote in a Democratic primary because that was a “private” process (even when it resulted in who led his community at every level); that those taxes and those tests were all perfectly fine. At one point, the Court does say that the “grandfather” rule is not allowed—but then the state immediately writes a new law that excludes all the same voters and no one in the government seems to care that they are publicly ignoring an order by the highest court in the nation.
And in the case he remembers most, the Court declares that even if the new laws are indeed eliminating him and others from voting on a massive scale because they are Black, the Court has no practical power to stop those laws, or enforce the Constitution if it were to strike down those laws, so it won’t even try. Instead, the Court tells him and his peers and the prominent men who brought the suits that while the court and federal government won’t do the very thing he recalls them doing when he was young, that is it up to them to change those laws in the states where they live through the “political process.” And he wonders how they can do that when they are no longer eligible to participate in the political process due to the very rules they challenged in the Court. And when the only people left in the political process are the people who fought so hard to eliminate him.
And in the decades following those decisions, without that federal support or a Court enforcing the Constitutional provisions he had revered as a student, his memory of the 1870s and 1880s fades. In its place, for the same reason he doesn’t, no one around our now 20- and 30- and 40-something is registered, or votes. Even his grandfather and father stop trying altogether. They are essentially barred by law or trickery, and if they try to, they risk violence, or unemployment or other consequences for them or their families. And with the federal government no longer there to protect them or their rights, they may live in America, but they are no longer part of America’s democracy, even when the words of the Constitution so clearly declare that they should be.
Election Day, such an exciting and important day in his youth, is one that passes by with no one he knows taking part. By the turn of the century, the 128,000 registered Black voters in Louisiana falls to the low 1000s—by 1906, 1,342. By 1910. Only 730. In S Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, similar declines. From 300,000 collectively to around 3,000 in each state by 1900. So when this man reaches his 30s and 40s, unlike when he was teen, not a single Black man he knows votes. While White folks all around, even the ones who couldn’t pass that test he felt that he passed, always vote. So of course, their candidates always win.
When he enters his 40s, even presidential elections pass by with hardly any Black involvement. (2%, versus the 60% when he was a teenager).
And some years after that, when women finally get the chance to vote, it’s only the White women who do. Black women, like the men, can not participate; even though the Amendment that gave Black voters the right to vote is written in the exact same way as the new one giving women the right to vote. One is given effect; the other is not.
But far more than just election days where no one he knows participates, the consequences of that lack of voting are present everywhere, in so many painful ways.
First, all those Black officials he grew up seeing all around him, at every level…by the time he’s in his 30s, they’re all gone. From local office. From judgeships. From statehouses. From Congress. There are none left. The people in office at every level now are the ones winning primaries he can’t even take part in.
And as a result of all of those officials being ousted from power, every year new laws target every aspect of his life, and the life of every Black person he knows. Rules that weren’t there when he was a teen. And since he and his Black peers can’t vote, they can’t change those laws. And just as with the rules that kept him from voting, whenever the most educated people he knows go to court and challenge the new rules, the courts again say that despite clear words suggesting otherwise, there is nothing in the law or Constitution (which, again, he had been taught protected him) that allows them to stop those new laws or government actions. And if the mistreatment or worse comes from private companies or businesses, or violence comes from private mobs, the courts again rule that nothing can be done. Nothing protects them, even as the very words “equal protection” appear right there in the Constitution.
Speaking of violence, the risk of violence is always present in his life. The wrong look, the wrong words, or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time—any moment can lead to violence, fatal violence, against him and anyone he knows. And he learns that when such violence is inflicted upon a Black citizen, there is no recourse. There is no rule of law. No protection. Even in the rare case that a violent act makes it to trial, a jury which includes no Black citizens (since there are no Black voters) simply decides nothing wrong happened, even if everyone in the community knows that’s false; even if the victim’s family is sitting in the courthouse attesting to it all. But when those he knows are accused of a crime or violence, they are lucky if they even get to a trial before the community takes matters into their own hands. And when they do take it into their own hands, again, nothing ever happens to them.
Also, as he reaches his 40s, 50s and later, this man watches as the very people who destroyed the world he grew up in and replaced it with this new Southern apartheid system are rewarded for their actions—the most aggressive and hateful of them are the ones who rise to become Governors, Congressmen and Senators in Washington, treated as national leaders by politicians all across the country—including presidents. And their hateful handiwork—work that forever altered the course of his life—is not just rewarded by upward advancement, but celebrated as their names soon appear on buildings and bridges and statues in town after town. Even in the nation’s capital. The very people who destroyed the world he grew up in…feted as heroes whose names and images he and now his children and grandchildren must walk past every day. And read about in newspapers and books as local and state heroes.
As this man gets into his older years, he does start to see small signs of change. Even hope. His and others’ kids and grandkids who fought in wars come back expecting more. Demanding more. Although some of them are met with violence for saying so. He reads that some of the lawsuits that have lost for years start to succeed, on paper at least, even if he doesn’t see any changes in his town. He cheers on Jackie Robinson when he enters baseball—scanning every game’s box score—even as he worries about the brave player’s safety.
At the same time, he reminds himself that he’s felt that hope before, only to see it dashed through new laws and court rulings and waves of violence. In his life, the brave protagonists of justice have been crushed every time.
And in another way, the new signs of hope feel small because they remind him how much the world of his youth collapsed before his eyes. Since unless this man lives into his 90s or more, from his mid-20s on, this man will likely never see a local Black official—when they were present at all levels when he was a teen. That memory makes the emergence of one or two Black baseball players feel much less meaningful, but he keeps that to himself as those who never saw his lost world celebrate what they consider historic progress. And he, for the most part, will never see any change to the Jim Crow laws that upended his world when he was in his teens, 20s and 30s.
Unless he makes it to the century mark, he will die never knowing if the new generation of young people demanding change will achieve it, or face the angry backlash, violence and lack of federal support of a century before, and the violence that reoccured every time any Black citizens he knew or read about demanded and protested for better.
And while he may have achieved personal happiness and meaning in many other ways—through his family, his church, his work, and personal pursuits—THAT is the trajectory of this man’s public life as an American.
Now, I hope you see why I can’t stop thinking about this man’s life.
I would love to talk to him, and hear more about the forgotten and intentionally erased history of that original world he grew up in. I would love to hear him explain what the failure to fight for a full democracy back in the 1870s, 1880s and 1890s did to him and the world he knew; not just the fear and horror he felt as he watched the emergence of violent and lawless white supremacy all around him, but the betrayal he felt as he watched the national government and other former allies quit their fight.
I imagine he’d remind us that what happened was not inevitable. That at his early years—when so many he knew voted and occupied important public offices and a federal government stood to protect their new rights and new democracy—what came later would’ve felt unimaginable.
My guess is he’d tell us that the never-ending nightmare that set in was a product of key decisions along the way. Not just intentional decisions by racists and White supremacists. But by others. Key moments where prior allies chose not to fight. Or chose to compromise to get other things done, while he and all the people he knew paid the price. Or moments when too many took for granted that progress would just continue….who assumed words on a revered document would somehow matter if courts and leaders chose not to give them effect. Or simply didn’t care if they weren’t given effect.
Why else do I think so much about this 16-year old from the 1880s?
Because his life is a reminder that progress is not inevitable. That things can go the wrong way if we don’t continually fight for them to go in the right way. That we can never let our guard down when it comes to democracy. And that when we grow confident that it’s relatively stable and secure, that is letting our guard down.
And his life also makes me think every day about the teenage girls and boys of today. Or slightly older. Or my 9- and 6-year olds. Who grew up in a country where certain rights and processes also felt guaranteed, and generally have been taken for granted.
But how recent events have shown, as in the late 1800s, that taking any of them for granted turns out to be a mistake. That they must be protected and fought for, because others are trying to eliminate them, and are making steady progress in doing so.
And how, like our 1880s teenager, the lives and rights of our young people will be shaped by the actions we take in the coming weeks, months and years—for the better, if we revive the democracy and core rights we have taken for granted. Or for the dramatically worse, if we let democracy collapse in front of our eyes because we fail to fight for it, or compromise in the wrong ways, or assume that someone else will do the work to protect it even if we don’t.
We have so much to learn from the Black teenager from the 1870s South.
Let’s remember his life and those of his generation. As best as we can, let’s feel what they felt. Understand what they experienced.
And let’s honor them.
By not allowing them to be erased.
And by learning from all they endured.
NEVER STOP FIGHTING FOR DEMOCRACY!