Alan Zendell, June 2, 2021
In the aftermath of the American Civil War, the country was more divided than at any time in its history. Racist philosophies and policies were considered politically correct by millions of Americans, many of whom served in Congress and publicly argued that Negroes were and always would be inferior to whites and could thus not be entrusted with the sacred responsibility of voting. Alas, that responsibility seems to be losing its sanctity in the minds of Trump-dominated Republicans.
The Thirteenth Amendment declared slavery and other forms of involuntary servitude illegal except in certain cases as punishment for criminal acts. But those were just words as long as White Supremacists had as loud a voice as those who believed in the principle of equality. Could a nation as terribly divided over race as it was in 1866 fix that when arguments that would shock us today even in light of Charlottesville and the Capitol Insurrection were commonplace? Looking back, it seems remarkable that there were enough people of good faith among our leaders to pass the Fourteenth Amendment, which explicitly granted citizenship to anyone born in the United States. It further declared that “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens.”
You don’t need a law degree or even a high school diploma to understand what those words mean. They are unequivocal and absolute. There is no doubt that they were intended to include the right to vote, free of any other qualifying tests. Yet, almost every state dominated by a Republican legislature is presently trying to restrict that right under the most transparently hypocritical guise of protecting against fraud. Among the ironies of a Trump-dominated Republican Party is accusing President Biden of being an anti-democratic socialist while in a very real sense placing him in the extremely Conservative position of defending the Constitution against those who would trash our democracy.
Signaling that the gloves are about to come off, Biden went to Tulsa yesterday to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Massacre and elucidate his administration’s position on race and voting rights. The massacre was a White Supremacist terrorist attack against a prosperous part of the city known as the Black Wall Street. As the New York Times reported, “The [result was] a staggering portrait of loss: 35 blocks burned to the ground; as many as 300 dead; hundreds injured; 8,000 to 10,000 left homeless; more than 1,470 homes burned or looted; and eventually, 6,000 detained in internment camps.” If you have a child studying American history in school, pick up his or her textbook and look up what happened exactly one hundred years ago. Does it make any mention of the Tulsa Massacre?
President Biden understands that changing the minds of committed racists and people who put political opportunism above the Constitution is an uphill battle he probably can’t win, especially if we permit history to be erased or re-written when it’s convenient. But ever the optimist, Biden believes he doesn’t have to. Instead, he is convinced that the voices of hate and divisiveness do not represent the majority, even in deeply red states. He intends to reach out to that majority, who he believes are decent and fair-minded, shining a light on what his opponents would rather keep in the shadows.
In Tulsa, Biden drew a clear line between attempts to whitewash history and the Trump-led efforts to suppress voting rights. Governors like Brian Kemp (R-GA) and Greg Abbott (R-TX) couldn’t be more transparent about their attempts to restrict minority voting in their states, and Biden wants to assure that everyone understands what is at stake. He fervently believes that legislators who act to preserve their political hold on power rather than to defend democracy as defined in the Fourteenth Amendment do not represent the will of the majority of their citizens. I hope he’s right, because as we draw closer to the 2022 and 2024 elections, it appears that only a groundswell of support from that previously silent majority can preserve our democracy.
If Republicans in the Senate are allowed to scuttle passage of HR-1, The Voting Rights Act, and new state laws restricting voting go unchallenged in the courts, we may not recognize our own country ten years from now. I believe these laws are clear violations of the Fourteenth Amendment, but I’ll leave that argument to the lawyers. Democracy only works when the majority, tempered by constitutional limits on its ability to tyrannize minorities, are allowed to be heard. When we forget that, we might as well throw in the towel.