Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Indelible Symbols

Last night I had a dream about all people, George Wallace. Don't know where that one came from, I can't remember the last time I thought about the former segregationist governor of Alabama, it may have been 2013 when I wrote this piece commemorating the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination.

In my dream I was interviewing Wallace late in his life, where he renounced, as he did in real life, his racist/segregationist ways. The only detail I remember of the dream was looking into his eyes and being convinced he was sincere.

Hey what can I say, it was a dream.

In case you're too young to remember, Wallace was a major player on the American political scene from the early sixties and extending well into the eighties. He ran unsuccessfully for president four times and in 1968 became the last third party candidate to date to receive electoral votes from a state. He actually won five states, all of them in the south. It's difficult to say what if any impact he had on the outcome of that election as he more than likely siphoned both Democratic votes (Wallace was a Democrat) from Hubert H. Humphrey, and conservative votes from Richard M. Nixon who won the presidency in one of the closest elections in US history.

The 1972 election almost cost Wallace his life after an assassination attempt while campaigning for his party's nomination in Maryland.

Confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life, Wallace managed to run for president again in the Democratic primary of 1976, and continued to serve as Governor of Alabama, a post he held until 1987.

But much of that is forgotten. George Wallace will go down in history as the man who as governor, stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, in an attempt to prevent black students from entering, and thereby integrating the school. It took the efforts of President Kennedy and the National Guard to force Wallace to comply. Wallace is also infamous for his most well known quote delivered at his first inauguration in 1963:
In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.
Two years later, it was Wallace who ordered the brutal attack on civil rights marchers as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, during the planned march from Selma to the state capital Montgomery.

Times changed radically after the turbulent sixties and it was a kinder, gentler, but still thoroughly conservative Wallace who managed to hold on to power all those years. By the end of his life he had all but completely distanced himself from his past.

Wallace attended a commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the Selma violence forever known as Bloody Sunday. He was too old and sick to speak at the event but delivered a plea for reconciliation via an assistant to those gathered. In the speech through his aide, Wallace said: 
My friends, I have been watching your progress this week as you retrace your footsteps of 30 years ago and cannot help but reflect on those days that remain so vivid in my memory. Those were different days and we all in our own ways were different people. We have learned hard and important lessons in the 30 years that have passed between us since the days surrounding your first walk along Highway 80...

Those days were filled with passionate convictions and a magnified sense of purpose that imposed a feeling on us all that events of the day were bigger than any one individual...

Much has transpired since those days. A great deal has been lost and a great deal has been gained, and here we are. My message to you today is, 'Welcome to Montgomery.'

May your message be heard. May your lessons never be forgotten. May our history be always remembered.

Whether his change of heart was genuine or out of political expedience, no living person will ever know, Wallace took that knowledge to his grave in 1998. Considering late in his life what his legacy would be, (in a very different era than the one in which he started his career), perhaps Wallace did not want to be seen as having forever been on the wrong side of history. Or perhaps his "finding Christ" later in life helped show him the error of his ways, we'll never know. 

What is true is the image of Governor Wallace standing in the university doorway in Tuscaloosa in 1963, has proven to be perhaps the most indelible image of American racism. 

That is until last week. 

It didn't take a political genius to figure out a path to victory for the Democratic candidate in the 2020 presidential election. To prove that point, I spelled it out in this post from February of last year. I may not have gotten the candidate right but I sure nailed the strategy. That strategy was simply to appeal to black voters in swing states such as Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Ohio, states that all went Republican in 2016 but all by relatively small, easy to overcome margins. 

In this past election, all but Ohio went for the Democrats thanks to a huge turnout of black voters. What I didn't take into account was Georgia. There, the significant African American vote of Fulton County put the Democrats over the top. Not only that but in January, the Peachtree State flipped their two senate seats from Republican to Democrat, again a result of overwhelming turnout from the Atlanta area. 

Licking their wounds, Republicans hoping for better luck come the 2022 elections in the great state of Georgia, rather than logically asking how they could better appeal to this considerable constituency of theirs, decided it would be more prudent to change the election rules so as to prevent as many of the people who voted against them, from voting in the future. 

If the lion's share of those people happened to be black, well politics is politics. 

Of course in 2021 they couldn't come out and openly admit to intentionally disenfranchising black voters, so they came up with an old standby.

Voter fraud as an excuse for losing an election has been around forever.

Here's an example of a movie made in 1941 (Citizen Kane) describing an event that took place perhaps thirty years earlier.

But without a thread of evidence of voter fraud turning Georgia from red to blue, the Republicans of Georgia who still have a stranglehold over state politics, had to come up with something. How, they reasoned, could there have been such a dramatic shift between the elections of 2016 and 2020 had there not been fraud at the polls? 

Well I have a theory. It could be that the Democrats did a good job convincing black people to come out and vote in 2020. More likely however all the credit goes to Donald Trump who in his four years as president, worked tirelessly to piss off black people. It's not all that hard to figure out a swing of a little over 100,000 votes in a state with 7.6 million registered voters, and a candidate despised by so many of them. 

After losing the 2020 election, rather than campaigning in earnest for the two Republican senators, the exPOTUS just kept harping on his blatant lie that since he lost the state, the Georgia elections had to be rigged, casting doubt among his supporters on the state's ability to hold a fair election.  Turns out enough Georgia Trumplicans were so dismayed by their state's election system, they stayed at home during the runoff election, causing their party to lose both seats and with them, control of the Senate in the January runoffs. 

Well played indeed. 

Again rather than using the sensible approach, convincing their constituents that Georgia's elections were indeed fair and above board, the state's Republican legislature wrote up eighty some different bills, each one aimed at "reforming" their election system to "restore the faith" of, well lets just say some of the voters. 

Needless to say, every one of these bills in one way or other, was designed to make it harder to vote, especially for black people. 

Many of the new restrictions had to do with mail-in and absentee voting, something black people are more likely to take advantage of than white people. 

Others restricted the hours polls were open making it harder for people paid by the hour to vote. 

New voter ID requirements were put in place, which also disproportionately effect people of color. 

One bill that passed banned the use of two busses that were put into service as polling stations to help with overflow crowds on election day. Why? Well the two busses were put into service in Atlanta so your guess is as good as mine. 

In the guise of appearing that the Republicans were willing to compromise, not all eighty of their bills made it into law, they were "willing" to let a few of the more outrageous ones go by the wayside.

But a bill that did make it into law, one that has been making reasonable people's hair stand on end, is a new restriction that prevents anyone within 150 feet of a polling place other than a poll worker, from distributing water to people standing in line waiting to vote. Failure to comply with this new regulation  could result in a misdemeanor conviction and a one year jail sentence.

Now for someone like me who's from say, anywhere but Georgia, this might not seem like such a big deal because save for the last Illinois Primary election which took place during the height of the pandemic, I've never had to wait in line for more than a half hour to vote. But for whatever reason, in Georgia the voting process is notoriously slow, and standing in line for several hours to vote, especially in black precincts, is the rule, not the exception. On top of that, Georgia can still be pretty hot come election time in November, not to mention spring when the primaries occur. 

Defending this new law, state Republicans say it is in keeping with other restrictions used all over the country, preventing campaign workers from soliciting votes by offering voters within a certain distance from the polling place, "gifts" that could be construed as buying their votes. The only difference here is that water and food have been explicitly counted among these potential "gifts" that are strictly forbidden to be distributed to the voters. They say not to worry, the poll workers are there to help distribute the water. However there is nothing written into the new law that requires poll workers to distribute water to thirsty voters. 

Again, common sense would dictate that Georgia election officials would do is everything in their power to make the voting process more efficient to avoid the long lines where people require refreshment in the first place. No one should have to tolerate waiting in line for hours to vote. But given the history of the way elections have been run in Georgia over the past oh hundred plus years or so, that's apparently not what they want for whatever reason, you may draw your own conclusion.

Don't get me wrong, I don't expect people to be physically harmed by this, one way or other, folks who need hydration will get it, at least I would hope so. This is just another of a long line of indignities and injustices that people of color in this country have been subjected to over the centuries. 

But the truth is, no matter the logic of the new law nor how you spin it, bad as preventing people from voting or from attending college, the symbolism of making a law against giving another person a drink of water is a new low. It runs counter to what every decent person is taught from day one. It is a violation not only of scripture which most Republicans these days claim to be so vitally important to them, but to the very act of being human.

For all of the bullshit new regulations packed into this unnecessary law designed to disenfranchise people and nothing else, this particular feature will stand out, inspire rage and resistance, and above all and be remembered for a very long time. 

As such, the symbol of Georgia Republicans and their new law is the political equivalent of the symbol of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin with his knee on the neck of George Floyd.  

There will be consequences of course. George Wallace's blocking  the way of integration at the Uniiversity of Alabama, forced a reluctant Kennedy administration to rethink the issue of civil rights, putting it on the front burner of national issues. Backlash from Wallace, and others' blatantly racist actions paved the way for the two major civl rights bills promoted by JFK's successor Lyndon Johnson, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And the backlash from Alabama State police attacking peaceful demonstrators in Selma in 1965, helped pave the way for a reluctant country and dare I say, even George Wallace himself to rethink the issue of civil rights.

Governor Wallace can now rest in peace knowing that his face is no longer the indelible symbol of racism and inhumanity in this country. 

Here is his heir apparent, the current Georgia governor Brian Kemp, who signed bill SB202 the so called "Election Integrity Act of 2021" into law behind locked doors last Thursday.

Brian Kemp, the new poster child for American racism.

Who knows how Kemp will feel in a few years when the terrible symbol of racism he helped create will have backfired and he will be universally viewed with scorn and derision the world over, including in the South.

How will it feel for him to have been on the wrong side of history and how will he explain himself in order to correct his own legacy?

Pathetic isn't it how some people refuse to learn from history. 

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