This appeared in Maine Insights magazine.
By Neil Rolde
There is a story, most likely apocryphal but eminently believable, that in the days of Jim Crow rule in the South, a black man named Rastus appeared at a local poling place and said he wanted to register to vote.
The white good ol’ boys in charge decided to have some fun with Rastus. “Why, Rastus,” he was told, “Do’t’s you know that you can’t vote until you are able to prove to us you know how to read.”
“I can read,” replied Rastus.
“In that case, can you read this?” said one of his tormentors and help up a document written entirely in Chinese.
“Sho,’ I can read that,” the applicant declared.
“You can, Rastus? Tell us what is says.”
“It’s perfectly clear. No black man is going to vote in Mississippi in this election.”
This was, if true, one of the more benign ways of suppressing a black vote in the South during those days. In numerous cases, a mere request of this sort from an “uppity” black person could lead to Night Riders in sheets and a tumultuous lynching party.
Thus did the South in post-Reconstruction times, “reconstruct” its control over people it had once held in slavery, denying them thought terror and coercion the very basic right of a true democracy, the ability to participate in elections.
Jim Crow, to be sure, was more than just about voting. Once the Yankee occupiers had departed in the 1870’s, it fastened upon the region the hypocritical notion of “Separate but Equal” facilities, a gloss over the real intent of enforcing white domination upon the black populations of these States.
Many murders, enormous heartache, great acts of courage, finally led over the decades to our country’s recognition that these practices could not continue. In the new international political situation that came into being after World War 11, it was hurting us badly in our completion for global hearts and minds with Soviet Communism.
The Civil Rights era wrought a revolution in this respect. Desegregation appeared, knocking away the legal bases for the euphony “Separate but Equal” doctrine that had enshrined black inferiority as both a du jure and de facto reality. The South seemed to have changed. No longer would mobs of whites gather to block the entrance of persons of color into State Universities. When I was a kid, Boston College had a great football team and played in the Dallas Cotton Bowl and the New Orleans Sugar Bowl. But they had to leave one of their best players back up north because he was black and, as my father explained to me, the Southerners wouldn’t play if he were in the game. How things have changed when we look at athletics today.
But deeply held attitudes don’t die away easily. I remember being at an athletic event and a Southerner seated next to me commented cynically in reference the black players on the field, “we used to own them. Now we just rent them.”
Unhappily, those old prejudices are apt to reassert themselves as the political climate shifts, as it seems to be doing now. Witness the rash of laws, especially but not exclusively in Republican controlled States, to limit access to voters. The so-called “Voter Identification Laws” are touted as upholding the “integrity of the voting process.” Citations of actual abuse at the polls are practically non-existent and the mere handful purported nationwide has had no conceivable effect on election results.
But under these laws, persons would have to BUY photo ID’s. Here in disguise is a reintroduction of the POLL TAX, another trick the Southerners used in Jim Crow days, which has been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. So much for feigned right wing reverence to the U.S. Constitution.
After a recent election in Maine, the then Chairman of the Republican State Committee, Charles Webster, demonstrating his justification for voter suppression, publicly declared that at several polling places he had seen large blocs of black voters in the voting lines, a remarkable event surely in one of the whitest State in the Union. When pressed to name the towns where this spectacle allegedly happened. Charles clammed up. Obviously, he had just been blowing smoke.
Prior to this election, the Maine Legislature under full Republican control and with a Republican Governor in office repealed a law passed some years previously that allowed voters to register at the polls on Election Day. It had been working perfectly well and helped Maine achieve the second highest turnout percentage-wise of others in the entire nation.
Maine voters reacted. Our State Constitution allows for a “Peoples Veto” of obnoxious legislation. By a large margin the citizens of Maine elected to keep their example of true democracy, free and open to all.