Alabama followed Georgia’s lead this week in passing an incredibly regressive anti-abortion bill that is clearly part of a strategy for overturning Roe v. Wade. Alabama now makes no exceptions for rape or incest for abortions. Doctors who perform abortions could get 99 years in prison, and women who attempt an abortion would get charged with a Class C felony, potentially removing their voting rights.
The GOP is gunning for Roe, but their Southern-led strategy is actually taking aim at our entire U.S. Constitution. Since the end of Reconstruction in 1877, the former Confederate states have played a prolonged game of cat and mouse in which the states openly defy the Constitution and see if the federal government has the cojones to call their bluff. Historically, these Southern provocations are motivated by race, but they clearly extend to other progressive issues, including women’s rights.
Back in the 1800s, it worked like this: Southern Democrats either reclaimed control of their state legislatures from Republicans during Reconstruction, or they waited until Reconstruction ended to take control. During Reconstruction, Southern Dems collaborated with the Ku Klux Klan and other racist white terrorist militias to forcefully remove Republican politicians from office and intimidate black Americans from voting. After reclaiming control of “their” states, Southern Democrats passed legislation for the explicit purpose of depriving African Americans of their freedoms, but they tried to be subtle about it to avoid setting off too many alarm bells in Washington.
Alabama’s racist, regressive state constitution was ratified in 1875 during Reconstruction, and Georgia’s in 1877, as soon as Reconstruction ended. The other former Confederate states followed suit. Each state incrementally passed increasingly racist and oppressive laws, and waited for the courts to stop them.
These states actively and openly worked to remove federally protected rights away from black Americans. Poll taxes and literacy exams were created to deny black people their right to vote. State legislatures were reorganized, and districts redrawn to prevent African Americans from obtaining elected office, or having any power if they won election. When these impediments were allowed, states got bolder and began passing overtly segregationist legislation, too.
Louisiana’s Separate Car Act of 1890 required “equal, but separate” train-car accommodations for blacks and whites. After 20 years of silence from the Supreme Court that helped normalize oppression in the South, black activists and lawyers’ challenging Louisiana’s law finally compelled the court to weigh in. And sadly, the court’s disastrous 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision legalized nationwide segregation. The South’s racist gambit had prevailed.
The ideology of the South, and their state legislatures, finally set the tune the nation danced to. The same thing is happening today. You could call it the Alabamafication of America.
Following Plessy, the Southern states became even bolder. Georgia kept its 1877 constitution, and added amendments to make it more racist and oppressive (the state abolished that constitution in 1945). Alabama in 1901 made a new constitution that aggressively disenfranchised blacks and mandated segregation. Alabama still uses this constitution today.
Progressives far too often choose to divide up our issues. For example: We will act like women’s rights issue do not overlap with African-American issues unless we talk about black women. Conservatives have taken a broader approach, applying the methods developed over prolonged and incremental attacks on communities of color to take on all sorts of progressive causes.
For over 40 years, Republicans have worked to stack the courts with conservative judges to challenge Roe. And since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Southern states have used their state constitutions to challenge the federal Constitution, and call America’s bluff. Stacking the courts in their favor and controlling state legislatures has been the conservative one-two punch for dismantling any piece of progressive legislation.
Following the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder that gutted the pre-clearance protections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the GOP’s efforts have been turbo-charged. Senators like Tom Cotton of Arkansas had already impeded President Barack Obama’s attempts to staff his government and appoint judges, culminating in Merrick Garland’s thwarted Supreme Court nomination in 2016.
After Shelby, Republicans focused on reclaiming state legislatures, too. As in Reconstruction, the party focused on finding ways to block out black voters who prevented regressive conservatives from winning elections and controlling state legislatures.
For decades following the civil-rights movement, the strength of the Supreme Court to rebuff the South’s provocations remained unquestioned, but that has clearly changed since Bush v. Gore and the appointment of John Roberts as chief justice. Who knows if it is gullibility, naiveté, or incompetence, but in Shelby and Citizens United v. FEC, the Supreme Court fell prey to bad-faith Southern Republican logic and harmed our democracy as voters have been pushed out of our elections and dollars have poured in to them.
When Alabama’s or Georgia’s anti-abortion bill reaches the Supreme Court, Roberts’ court has no excuse for being bamboozled by regressive rhetoric, offered in bad faith. After a century and a half, we all should know how Southern conservatives play this game.