voter suppression

When Voter Suppression Goes Vigilante

Black Georgians lining up for early voting.
Black Georgians lining up for early voting. Photo: Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

The Republican Party has spent years making it harder for black people to vote, so it was perhaps only a matter of time before everyday citizens joined them.

Two such incidents in Georgia have made national headlines this fall. Responding to a tip on October 15, a Jefferson County clerk ordered 40 black senior citizens off a bus that was taking them to vote. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the clerk phoned the senior center in Louisville where they lived with concerns about the ride, which was organized at the residents’ request by the nonpartisan group Black Voters Matter. Officials later said the event constituted unauthorized “political activity” because the chairwoman of the county Democratic Party was involved. “We knew it was an intimidation tactic,” LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, told the AJC.

Just over a week later, in Cordele, a black city commissioner named Royce Reeves Sr., said he had the police called on him twice on October 24. An outspoken supporter of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, Reeves had spent much of the day driving poor locals to the polls in a borrowed funeral limousine. “They say I’m campaigning too close to the polls, soliciting votes,” Reeves said in a phone call with an acquaintance (a New Yorker reporter was in the car with him). Later that same day, a Georgia state trooper pulled Reeves over and ticketed him for parking illegally while he was talking with a man about work. Within minutes, several more patrol cars showed up and surrounded him. “Look at them,” a local woman named Takeyla Singleton said in a cell-phone video she recorded of the incident. “Six cars! Seven … That’s a crying shame. On one little person.”

Reports about voter suppression in Georgia have rightly focused on Brian Kemp, the state’s roll-purging Republican secretary of state who is overseeing his own election as he runs for governor. But with November 6 looming, the involvement of everyday citizens in enforcing Kemp’s mandates tells an equally profound story. In both cases outlined above, it was not Kemp’s office seeking to intimidate black would-be voters and voting organizers. It was local officials responding to the whims of residents who had phoned with their own concerns.

The weight of vigilante voter suppression is hard to understand without knowing its historical roots. In the Jim Crow South, officials at the state and local levels allied regularly with white residents to stop black people from voting. Such efforts were famously marked by violence. But perhaps the most analogous to today demonstrate how empowered everyday whites felt to thwart the black vote by means shy of murder and mutilation. Segregationist Eugene Talmadge won the 1946 governor’s race using a tactic predicated on suppressive vigilantism. “Talmadge supporters were urged to take advantage of an obscure law that let any citizen challenge any other citizen’s right to vote for any of several reasons,” wrote historian Donald L. Grant in The Way It Was in the South. “Thousands of challenge forms were mailed to white rural voters.” In 1962, a dozen whites accompanied by Sheriff Zeke Matthews and three of his deputies entered a black voter-registration rally in Sasser, Georgia. “We want our colored people to go on living like they have for the past 100 years,” the sheriff said. The invaders proceeded to record the names of those present, while Matthews inveighed against “this registering business” and made threats about what “disturbed white citizens might do” if it continued.

Local police were essential to these efforts, whether by silence, sanction, or active participation. When a black man from Ocilla, Georgia, named Earnest Davis filed to run for a city council seat in 1954, two uniformed officers “took [him] for a ride and fired a shot at him as a warning against running,” writes Grant. Civil-rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer recalls a 1962 incident in Mississippi with striking parallels to the Jefferson County, Georgia, senior center and Cordele cases. In August of that year, Hamer and 17 others climbed onto an old bus to register to vote in Indianola. On the way back, a highway patrolman flagged them down and ordered them off. “They arrested Bob [Moses, another civil-rights activist] and told the bus driver he was under arrest,” Hamer said in the oral history My Soul Is Rested. “The bus driver was fined $100 for driving a bus with too much yellow in it. Now ain’t that ridiculous? … Too much yellow.”

Perhaps the most notorious case of outright violence involved the 1964 murders of three civil-rights workers — James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman — who had traveled to Mississippi that summer to register black voters. But theirs were only the deaths that drew national attention at the time. “We had some 63 people killed around the question of the vote before ’64,” Mississippi civil-rights activist Lawrence Guyot said in My Soul Is Rested. “None of them were white. Lord knows how many people were run out of homes, run out of the state.” In Yazoo City, Guyot continued, such a fate was almost preordained. “[To] register to vote — good God, man, you’re talkin’ death. Why don’t I just shoot myself? It’d be quicker.” Activist and journalist Charles Cobb described black voter-registration efforts that took place in Indianola, Mississippi, two years earlier, in 1962. “Right after the first attempt to register people to vote, nightriders came through the black community and shot up three houses, wounding the daughter of a neighbor of the person we were staying with.”

Journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, reporting from Greenwood, Mississippi, in 2014, wrote about Silas McGhee, a local black man who suffered greatly for trying to register black voters under Jim Crow. “At the height of the Mississippi civil rights struggle, a white man pulled up in a car and shot McGhee in his face when McGhee was sitting outside of a Greenwood restaurant,” she wrote. “The bullet barreled through his mouth, taking his front teeth with it.” The same city saw less direct tactics used as well. “When people received a welfare check, there was a letter … stating that [they] should be very concerned about registering to vote at the request of ‘radicals’ because this may terminated the … check,” Guyot said. “We started really marching people down simply to attempt to register … The county decided that what it would do was it would cut off all welfare supplies. So it did just that. All food was cut off.”

Today’s southerners are heirs to this legacy. Following long-held tradition, some in Georgia have witnessed black voting efforts and responded by summoning law enforcement and other officials, prompting intimidating encounters that broadcast the risks of suffrage to other would-be black voters. It is true that Brian Kemp plays an outsize role in suppression efforts. He currently has 53,000 voter registration applications on hold, 70 percent of which were filed by black applicants, and in what seems a desperate act announced an attempted hacking investigation into the state’s Democratic Party on Sunday, for which he provided no evidence. But his real legacy transcends the reach of his office. During his tenure, he has advanced a culture whereby black votes are inherently suspect and open to challenge. That civilians are drawn and empowered to help him shows that his suppressive aims are shared across class, place, and profession. And such an alliance is likely to hound black Georgians long after Tuesday’s election.

When Voter Suppression Goes Vigilante