Intersections: Lincoln, Obama, and Voting Rights

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Within days of President Obama’s re-election, the U.S. Supreme took a case seeking to end certain voting rights protections for Blacks; an enraged minority began talks of secession from the Union while assassination was brazenly discussed on Facebook. Today, the political losers rage as they did in the time of President Abraham Lincoln.

President Barack Obama received more popular and electoral votes. People chose to re-elect him, decidedly. Yet, so-called secessionists cite the U.S. Constitution and a litany of provisions from The Declaration of Independence to justify their outrageous behavior. The First Amendment may protect their right to free speech. However, their intent bares the mark of treason.

These Americans reject racial modernity. They cannot accept losing to a Black man. Or, is it losing to a Black man with votes from African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, women, college students, and White liberals. As in the time of Abraham Lincoln, freedom for African slaves triggered a seething rage laced with murderous actions.

Assassination is an American reality. It is a felony to talk about taking the life of our President. This talk is especially disturbing given November 22 was the anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Yet, a Facebook page owner uses racial slurs and writes of not caring whether the President is assassinated. For her one remark, there must be thousands of others who believe such murderous talk is justified. After all, "their" country is at stake.

President Lincoln faced a nation in turmoil. Southerners, believing freedom was meant for them alone, turned against the Union. Southerners, who would own other human beings, fought for the right to do so. Over 600,000 people died fighting in the Civil War. Young Confederate soldiers who never owned a person fought to maintain a culture of slavery, an inheritance of superiority. African soldiers fought to end this culture of oppression and inherit freedom.

Modern-day secessionists grasp at a culture of White superiority. These so-call secessionists hold no real political power. They do not speak for an entire State. Their desperate fight is for a country where White-Americans remain on top, in perpetuity, and people of color are tolerated. They wage this fight as the U.S. Census discloses the White population is shrinking and along with it their White conservative power base. This Presidential election demonstrated that shift in power even to those who refuse to accept it.

Change waits no one. Before the Civil War, America’s highest Court ruled in Dred Scott v. Sanford that Africans in America were not people with rights. But, the tide turned. Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, a military maneuver, undermined the economy of the United States of the Confederacy with its own president, military, currency, and Constitution. But, without African labor, there was no Southern economy.

Abraham Lincoln was a wily politician. Fearful of having his Proclamation repealed or ruled unconstitutional, Lincoln pushed for passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, ending slavery and indentured servitude. In 1865, Africans in America were made free, under law. President Lincoln would pay for his stand against slavery with his life. Freedom for African-Americans would remain a struggle against those who opposed Black political power. 

But, in 1870, the U.S. Senate boasted Hiram Revels, the first Black person in Congress, who would be joined by many other African-
Americans. Freedom meant the right to cast a ballot or run for elected office. It meant having the results of those elections respected. Yet, Congress knew to pass legislation to protect Black voting rights from those who would not accept this freedom.

That logic should hold today. When the U.S. Supreme Court hears the case of Shelby County v. Holder, the Justices may only recall the high Black voter turnout, and not the unnecessarily long lines to the voting booth. The Supreme Court may not understand how much vigilance racial justice requires. The Justices may think only of the re-election of a Black President and not the dangers of racial hatred that mark his every step. 

Shelby County, Alabama, has a notorious history of terrorizing Black voters. Now, it challenges the reauthorization of Section Five, the preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Although Congress is given deference to decide the necessary level of evidence needed to pass legislation, Shelby County argues that Congress did not hear enough evidence of race-based voter oppression to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act.  

There are those who will take the President’s re-election to mean America is post-race. However, the racial antipathy he has received should lead others to believe a small part of America never got over 1865.   

"Speaking Truth To Empower."


Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, an Associate Professor of Constitutional Law at John Jay College in New York City, is author of “Race, Law, and American Society: 1607 to Present” and a journalist covering the U.S. Supreme Court. Her forthcoming book is “Black Women and the Law.”

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