Current legislation that has passed in the House of Representatives and is being debated in the Senate, HB 1079/SB 971, would essentially criminalize voter registration drives by "enhancing election security." The bill would require training for groups that register more than 100 people while the State Election Commission would be granted authority to, “assess a civil penalty to people or organizations that submit large numbers of deficient forms." Other requirements include submitting registration forms within 10 days of an election, and the banning of "out of state" poll watchers. It is important to note that on last year, the Pew Research Center ranked Tennessee as 40th in voter registration and 50th, dead last, in voter turnout. Nevertheless, these current devices employed by the Secretary of State and General Assembly are just the latest in a long history of disparate and discriminatory treatment that has been waged along racial, class and social lines for decades.
Tennessee has a long and arduous history in terms of voter suppression and the disenfranchisement of African-Americans, minorities and the poor. After the passage of several federal statutes in the aftermath of the Civil War, namely the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, the Freedmen's Bureau Act and the Civil Rights Bill of 1866, Southern states partook in a fierce repudiation of African-American political autonomy, economic viability and civil status as they commenced a deliberate and systematic effort to deconstruct Reconstruction policies. Tennessee was not from exempt from these maladjusted and misaligned practices. It would be the first State to enact a “Redeemer” government which sought to strip these gains through breaking the coalition that had been forged between Freedman and progressive whites.
Despite the fact that the Civil Rights Bill of 1866 had sought to strengthen the rights and liberties that had been afforded to those formerly held in servitude, numerous U.S. Supreme Court decisions would embolden Southern Legislatures to launch acts of suppression meant to disenfranchise black citizens. Amongst the most prominent of these legal rulings were the Slaughterhouse Cases (1873), infamously in Cruikshank (1876), the case which derived from the Colfax Massacre of 1873 that resulted in the deaths of nearly 150 black men, and in the Civil Rights Cases of 1883, which declared that only a governmental " state action," not individual discriminatory treatment, was in conflict with the Constitution.
In the lone dissent, Justice Harlan would argue that the Court's decision to nullify key provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was "narrow and artificial" based on the fact that it failed to recognize that Congress retained, if not the responsibility, then the explicit authority, to pass an act in order to protect basic and fundamental tenets of citizenship. He would write, "It is fundamental in American citizenship that, in respect of such rights, there shall be no discrimination by the state, or its officers, or by individuals, or corporations exercising public functions or authority, against any citizen because of his race or previous condition of servitude." He was right that as Black Codes became a widespread and accepted practice across the country, blacks had been relegated into a permanent underclass that was deemed as inferior, most profoundly in the areas of voting and representation.
Several years ago, the Tennessee State Library and Archives and historians began an online website that can attest to this fact called, "This Honorable Body: African-American Legislators in 19th Century Tennessee," which is dedicated to the history and memory of the State's first African-American legislative officials. The very first was Sampson W. Keeble, who served from (1873-75). The last three black legislators of the 19th century to serve in the legislature were Monroe W. Gooden, Styles L. Hutchins and Samuel McElwee. In fact, McElwee, who at a young age had gained a national reputation as a great orator, would give an impassioned speech in protest of mob violence that occurred in 1887, in which he decried, “Great God, when will this nation treat the negro as an American citizen, whether he be in Maine, among her tall pines, or in the south, where the magnolia blossoms grow?”
Ironically, in November of 1888, armed mobs and vigilantes would patrol the communities and streets of Haywood County as they sought to prevent McElwee from winning another term to the Legislature. After the vote, the mob allotted him five minutes to address his supporters and five minutes to flee the county for his life. African-Americans would have no other representatives in the General Assembly for nearly 80 years, until A. W. Willis Jr. of Memphis was elected in 1965. By 1889, the permanent disenfranchising of African-Americans would be complete as the legislature passed restrictive measures which included the Myers Law, the Lea Law, and the Dortch Law, in addition to a poll tax. According to the Tennessee Encyclopedia, "The Myers Law, named for Rep. Thomas R. Myers of Bedford County, required voters in districts or towns that had cast more than 500 votes in 1888 to register at least 20 days before every election."
Two other voting rights atrocities also occurred in Haywood County. As chronicled in the Jim Emison book, Elbert Williams: The First to Die, Elbert Williams was a part of a burgeoning NAACP Chapter he had helped to found who were spearheading voter registration efforts. Prior to a local meeting of the branch he had planned on June 20, 1940, he was questioned and then abducted by several community members, including police officers. Three days late, his mutilated body would be found floating in the Hatchie River. Despite an inspection that was conducted by such notable figures such as Thurgood Marshall, no one has been indicted for the murder of Williams, who holds the distinction of being the NAACP's first known martyr.
Likewise a reveling account on the importance of voting rights is illustrated by the story of "Tent City", and the brave stance undertaken by the poor black farmers and sharecroppers in Fayette and Haywood counties which included the much heralded team of John and Viola McFerren. In 1959, black residents formed the Original Fayette County Civic and Welfare League in order to spawn the registration of voters and push for economic empowerment. For merely exercising their constitutional right to vote, they would be brutally intimidated, coerced and evicted from their farms and homes and be forced to reside on a makeshift tent encampment until federal intervention and food supplies arrived several months later. The courage of the poor farmers and sharecroppers of these two counties is often credited as being one of those seminal events which contributed to the origins of the Civil Rights Movement and led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1960, which amongst other things established the right of the federal government to inspect the integrity of local elections and provided penalties for individuals who attempted to deny or abridge the right to vote.
Voter suppression has affected Tennessee citizens young and old in more recent times, particularly during the implementation of the Voter ID Law. The nation stood in horror as they learned of the tale of then 96-year-old Mrs. Dorothy Cooper. Publications such as the Chattanooga Times Free Press and national media outlets such as Think Progress began to detail Mrs. Cooper's account. One day she arrived at a local election office with several required materials, save one, a marriage certificate. Mrs. Cooper had been twice married and never obtained a driver's license. She had not missed an election for 75 years. Despite this she was denied a voter ID. Thankfully, through her steadfastness and the advocacy of local citizens, she was permitted to vote several months later.
The Voter ID law has also had an adverse effect on college students as well. Several students attending university in Nashville, including TSU and Fisk, have repeatedly challenged the rationale and fairness of Voter IDs since 2014. They have questioned why several state issued IDs can be used for registration, including gun permits, but not student IDs? They also countered arguments about replication and duplicity by noting that many states that border Tennessee permit the use of college IDs. In 2015, the Nashville Student Coordinating Committee would launch a federal lawsuit against the exclusion of college IDs as permissible forms of ID and have continuously advocated for their inclusion as valid forms of ID. Also, high school students from across the state, as part of the Tennessee Bar Association's CATALYST program, have crafted model legislation that would automatically register all 18-year-olds with a driver's license
Therefore be it resolved, that the Unity Group of Chattanooga concurs with the opinion of dozens of Civil Rights and social justice organizations across the state, and a growing chorus nationwide, in denouncing this discriminatory and demeaning piece of legislation. Its very presence dishonors and debases the reputation and integrity of our great state. Its sole and primarily objective is to deny and abridge the right to vote. More productive measures to ensure voter effectiveness and integrity would be: (1) An expansion of early voting to include Sunday voting so that Souls may go to the Polls; (2) Automatic Registration; (3) Allow college IDs to be permissible during elections; (4) Fully restore the vote to formerly incarcerated persons; (5) Congress to restore key provisions of the Voting Rights Act; (6) Ensure fairness in all Redistricting Processes.
These are the true things that will uphold honor and integrity in our voting and democratic processes. As Justice Harlan noted in his dissent during the Civil Rights Cases, “It is not the words of the law but the internal sense of it that makes the law. The letter of the law is the body; the sense and reason of the law is the soul." The internal sense of this law is one of malicious intent, discriminatory purpose, and just plain perfidious on a wide variety of levels. If it sees the light of day it will be regarded by history as having failed to lean towards the better angels of our nature.
Yours in abundance,
Sherman E. Matthews Jr, chairman
Eric Atkins corresponding secretary, editor