Days after blocking the advancement of vital voting rights legislation and corrupting the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Republican politicians are advancing their undemocratic agenda by advocating for the creation of “election police.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is asking for $5.7 million to create an Office of Election Crimes and Security. In Georgia, former senator and gubernatorial candidate David Purdue promises a new Election Law Enforcement Division. Other Republicans pushing Trump’s Big Lie are sure to follow.
They aren’t breaking new ground, but joining a long tradition of dressing up efforts to suppress and intimidate Black voters as somehow protecting the integrity of our American democracy.
A tipping point of the 1960s voting rights movement was the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965. Dr. Martin Luther King, John Lewis, and voting rights activists marching from Selma, Alabama, to the state’s capital were infamously attacked on what’s come to be known as “Bloody Sunday” by Southern police led by Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor, the president of the Alabama Public Service Commission. Americans nationwide saw for themselves as Connor’s goons attacked citizens protesting non-violently with bully clubs, dogs, and militarized vehicles. Lewis nearly died in the confrontation.
That August, the Voting Rights Act became law, and Black Americans could finally vote without the threat of government-sponsored or -sanctioned terrorism—that is, the voting police.
This week, Senate Republicans voted against the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act that would have restored voting rights protections created by the 1965 legislation but removed by John Roberts’ Supreme Court in 2013, on the bizarre premise that racial disparities were no longer a problem. With those protections gone, conservative politicians in the South are again trying to militarize and police voting.
This was all too predictable to anyone who knows American history, and part of the Republican Party’s anti-Democratic agenda is to ensure that much of that history is ignored or forgotten. It’s good that many Americans know about the Edmund Pettus Bridge, but more of them should know about Edmund Pettus, a white terrorist and politician from Alabama.
Pettus, born in Alabama in 1821, was a brigadier general in the Confederate Army. Following the Civil War, he was pardoned by President Andrew Johnson along with thousands of other Confederates, and upon obtaining his freedom he became a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan.
From its inception, the Klan’s main purpose was to return, or “redeem,” the South to its pre-Civil War, antebellum status quo. The group existed to suppress newly emancipated Black voters and America’s first civil rights acts, known as the Force Acts, were created to outlaw the Klan and similar groups so that Black Americans could vote without the threat of terrorism.
Pettus’ status as a Grand Dragon reveals how the Klan was never the ragtag group of powerless, disgruntled Southerners that it sometimes presented itself as, but was actually led by the elites of Southern society and those with military experience. During Reconstruction, Pettus had his own law practice in Selma and was also the Alabama delegate to the Democratic National Convention. Publicly, he helped the Democratic Party—in the 1860s the Democrats opposed voting rights—select their presidential candidates while privately he undermined democracy and orchestrated terrorism.
The Klan, the White League, and other domestic terrorist groups in the South, collaborated with “Redeemer” politicians and law enforcement to undermine American democracy and help Americans who opposed the expansion of voting rights win elections and maintain power. Sometimes, voter suppression would be enough for a Confederate sympathizer to win an election, but when that failed, America’s white terrorists would launch coups d’état claiming voter fraud and that the election had been stolen from them.
On Sept. 14, 1874, near the end of Reconstruction, the White League attacked the Louisiana state house, then in New Orleans, and took control of the government for three days after they refused to admit defeat in the 1872 gubernatorial elections where pro-voting rights Republican politician William Kellogg defeated the Redeemer-Democrat John McEnery, and a Black man, Caesar Carpentier Antoine, was elected lieutenant governor. Federal troops were forced to intervene to reclaim control and defeat the White League.
Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan, the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol, and the Republican Party’s false claims of election fraud echo the Redeemers’ undemocratic, terrorist agenda.
As part of their dystopian agenda, Southerners after Reconstruction consciously named and re-named roads, bridges, and landmarks after treasonous, seditious Confederate “heroes,” and erected statues and monuments to celebrate the Confederacy. In 1891, Redeemers in New Orleans created the Battle of Liberty Place Monument to celebrate the terrorist coup d'état in 1874, and there was outrage from Republicans when the monument was finally removed in 2017.
In 1877, three years after the White League’s coup, Reconstruction came to an abrupt end and former Confederates quickly regained control of state governments across the South. Redeemer politicians then created poll taxes and literacy exams to suppress the Black vote, and advocated for “separate but equal” policies. They had a political agenda that created racist outcomes without racist language, and by the start of the 1900s their agenda had created Jim Crow in the South.
In 1897, Pettus was elected to the U.S. Senate, and represented Alabama until his death in 1907. In 1940, the Edmund Pettus Bridge was named after him.
Black people in the South were forced to live in a world named after people whose mission in life had been to oppress Black people.
This is our basic history and, unsurprisingly, today’s Republicans want to make sure it’s not what Americans learn in school. DeSantis is even pushing a bill that would ban the teaching of history that could cause white Floridians “discomfort.”
If Republicans can prevent Americans from knowing our own history, Americans will remain surprised and unprepared when Republicans use the oppressive tactics of the past to take away our rights and freedoms in the present.