Wiping out last vestiges of South's Jim Crow laws

November 20, 1998|By Steven A. Drizin

THE aftershocks from the midterm elections are still being felt. Perhaps the biggest shock came in now-ousted Speaker Newt Gingrich's native South, where the conservative wing of the Republican Party lost its electoral stranglehold. Two Republican governors and one Republican senator fell, and Democrats made gains in state offices throughout the region.

Worse yet for the Republicans, their obsession with impeaching the president awoke a sleeping giant -- the black electorate. Blacks cast 24 percent of all votes in South Carolina and 29 percent of all votes in Georgia. Because of generally low voter turnout, the large black turnout made the difference in several key elections.

The truth is that Republicans in the South should have lost even more races. Were it not for draconian Southern felony disenfranchisement laws, the black electorate could have been an even more imposing force. According to a recently released report by Human Rights Watch and the Sentencing Project, a Washington nonprofit think tank that promotes alternatives to incarceration, such laws kept more than 900,000 Southern black men from voting.

Almost every state imposes some restrictions on the right to vote after a felony conviction. But 10 states, including five in the South, bar felons from ever voting again, even if they have never served a day in jail.

Jim Crow history

The harsh Southern laws have their roots in the Jim Crow laws of the post-Civil War Reconstruction period. They are remnants of racism that should be struck down by the courts or rewritten by the legislatures to enable all those who have paid their debt to society to be restored to the voting rolls.

After the Civil War, white Southerners, desperate to maintain their way of life, passed a series of laws to limit black voting power. The most famous of these established poll taxes and literacy tests as barriers to black voting. These particular laws weren't completely wiped out until the massive struggle of the civil rights movement and the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

But between 1890 and 1910, many Southern states also tailored their already existing felony disenfranchisement laws to bar as many blacks as possible from voting. Southern legislatures, typically run by Democrats, made no secret of their racist intent.

In Mississippi, South Carolina, Virginia, Alabama and Louisiana, such laws were written to cover crimes that officials supposed blacks were more likely to be prosecuted for, such as theft, sex crimes like attempted rape and crimes of moral turpitude like adultery, not violent crimes like murder and fighting, which were likely to involve more whites.

Going by the book

Laws aimed at permanently disenfranchising felons remain on the books in Alabama, Mississippi, Florida and Virginia, preventing between one-quarter and one-third of all black men -- more than 500,000 residents -- from voting.

The other six states with such laws have relatively small black populations. So 95 percent of all permanently disenfranchised blacks in the United States come from these four states. Their only hope of regaining the right to vote is the slim chance that they'll be pardoned by the governor.

While felony disenfranchisement laws affect both blacks and whites, their impact on Southerners, particularly blacks is devastating.

There are 3.9 million disenfranchised voters in the United States, 2.5 million of whom are from Southern states. There are 1.4 million disenfranchised blacks, more than 900,000 of whom are Southerners. Nearly three-quarters of them are not in prison but are on parole, probation or are no longer under supervision of the criminal justice system.

The numbers of disenfranchised people in all states have mushroomed in recent years as a result of laws that have broadened the definition of felonies to include most drug offenses and an increasing number of property crimes.

This change has hit the black community particularly hard, sending large numbers of its young men into the criminal justice system.

Federal lawmakers should pass legislation to allow those felons who have paid their debt to society the right to vote in federal elections. This will minimize the effect of the racist Southern laws on national elections.

Just as they did in the 1960s to wipe out literacy tests and poll taxes, Congress and the president should pass legislation to eliminate these last vestiges of Jim Crow.

Steven A. Drizin is the supervising attorney at Northwestern University's School of Law's Children and Family Justice Center.

Pub Date: 11/20/98

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