The last time I visited my grandparents’ hometown, I was researching an article about lynching. In 1918, a white mob tore through Valdosta, Georgia, and the neighboring county and murdered at least 11 Black people, including Mary Turner, who was eight months pregnant and found suspended by her ankles and disemboweled. My cousin is a history buff and offered to show me around. Crossing town in his pickup truck, we drove down a leafy street where, according to local lore, the mob went door-to-door looking for a Black man accused of killing his white employer and allegedly shot residents who failed to disclose his whereabouts. The goal of my story was to investigate a personal connection. One of the lynch mob’s victims, Eugene Rice, shared my family’s name and was hanged less than 20 minutes from where my maternal grandmother grew up. “You see that house over there?” my cousin asked, pointing next door. “The lady who lives there, they say her great-uncle was in on it.”
There’s a lot that feels unprecedented about today’s electoral crisis in Georgia, and there’s earnest concern that we may never recover from Donald Trump’s damage to democracy. On December 5, the president went to Valdosta to engorge his ego, prattling on for close to two hours before a crowd of roughly 10,000 fans about imaginary voter fraud. The outcome of the purported “fraud” was his loss in the November election — the first time a Republican presidential candidate had surrendered Georgia since 1992. Its mechanism, according to Trump, included criminality and corruption innate to Atlanta, a Black city of reliably blue votes whose suburbs he had tried to entice by vowing to preserve their segregation. Days earlier, death threats were made — likely by Trump voters — against Georgia’s election administrators, who are overseen by a secretary of state from the president’s own party. “This has to stop,” Gabriel Sterling, the voting-system-implementation manager with Secretary Brad Raffensperger’s office, said during a press conference, nearly breaking down in tears. “It’s un-American.”
Sterling detailed the intimidation he had witnessed — calls for a 20-year-old contractor to be hanged, the suggestion that a cybersecurity official be “drawn and quartered” and then shot. The stakes of the president’s lies are manifold. Beyond what he has tacitly encouraged his supporters to do, he drafted several of his party compatriots — among them Georgia senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler. Both, of course, face runoff elections on January 5 that will determine the partisan makeup of the U.S. Senate, and they have concluded that their fate hinges on Trump getting his base to turn out for them.
Their chorus of national surrogates has grown louder by the day. On December 15, North Carolina representative-elect Madison Cawthorn went on Fox News and accused the Reverend Raphael Warnock, Loeffler’s Black opponent, of “disguising himself as some moderate pastor from the South.” The shades of birtherism were unmistakable; Warnock was born and raised in Savannah and has been a pastor for decades, most recently at Martin Luther King Jr.’s old church in Atlanta. Two days later, on December 17, ex–Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn appeared on Newsmax and suggested the president order “military capabilities” to swing states like Georgia and “rerun” the election. Georgians are flooding precincts during the early-voting period in record numbers, no doubt sensing the danger behind these attacks.
The cumulative effect of these events is an underlying recognition that the will of voters may be only as legitimate as the powerful choose to recognize. For Black Georgians, the conditional recognition of one’s citizenship rights, policed through terror, is the historical default. It is neither unprecedented nor, per Sterling’s lamentations, un-American.
It’s significant that Trump’s campaign to subvert democracy, by invalidating so basic a precept as a citizen’s right to have their vote counted, is unfolding in a place where basic rights for Black people are already invalidated as a matter of routine. What is the history of Black Georgia but a testament to the precariousness of Black people’s ability to participate in public life? What are the ways they have been selectively punished in their efforts to secure those rights but a brand of racial fascism, a slow-burn coup unfolding across centuries?
The lynchings of 1918 in Valdosta were emblematic of a national campaign of terror against America’s Black citizens and should have been understood as a rending of the social contract so profound, a betrayal so deep, that it would be thought to be unrecoverable. Instead, it was mostly forgotten. The reason for that lack of historical memory is simple. When such a betrayal is experienced by Black people, a restoration of normalcy tends to still look a lot like betrayal.
Just over 20 years after the Valdosta affair ended with its target pumped full of bullets, genitals severed, dragged through the streets by a rope tied to the back of a truck, the U.S. government sent Black Georgians just like him to Europe to defend its putative democracy. American forces helped to defeat the Nazis, but in 1946, the year after the war ended, a Black GI named Maceo Snipes came home to Taylor County, Georgia, and was shot to death by a group of white men because he voted. During the 1948 election, a Black farmer named Isaiah Nixon was killed in Montgomery County under similar circumstances. By that point, Black votes in Georgia had been nullified with regularity starting soon after Emancipation. In W.E.B. Du Bois’s landmark study Black Reconstruction, he recounts how white legislators in Georgia turned against their recently elected Black colleagues once federal authorities withdrew from the state. “In September, 1868, the legislature declared all colored members ineligible,” he wrote, “and it then proceeded to put in their seats the persons who had received the next largest number of votes.” This overturned the will of nearly half of the state’s electors.
The same repressive spirit informs more recent actions. Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election results seem premised on the invalidation of votes in a handful of heavily Black cities. But for years before Trump even took office, Georgia governor Brian Kemp, then the secretary of state, used a monstrous variety of suppression measures to diminish Black electoral power on the local level. His regime, too, was enforced by the threat of violence. False and racialized claims of fraud effectively deputized Georgia’s citizenry to punish voting crimes where they did not exist. A Black city commissioner named Olivia Pearson was charged with fraud (though eventually acquitted) for showing a first-time voter how to use a ballot machine in Coffee County in 2012. And in 2018, a Black man named Royce Reeves Sr. was surrounded by seven police cars in Cordele and detained after transporting poor locals to their polling places. Massive voter-roll purges and sweeping precinct closures became routine. Kemp rode this suppression to the governor’s mansion with Trump’s endorsement. In an ironic twist, he proved insufficiently loyal to afford the president the same result.
But Kemp’s stand against Trump is not a rejection of these violent methods. Trump’s ultranationalist authoritarianism is not only compatible with Kemp’s ill-gotten power; it is the manifestation of a de facto coup at the expense of Black Georgians and made possible by decades of thwarted votes. The president may very well have lumbered back up the steps of Air Force One after his Valdosta rally knowing that he was defeated. Our national recovery following his departure, however, will be colored by the fact that the democracy we’re used to — that is, America’s political system in its “recovered” state — is routinely and often brutally shut off to Black people. What lingered from my trip to my grandparents’ hometown, where Black people were hunted for sport, was the feeling that history is rarely as far off as it appears. The U.S. can move forward from a lethal hobbling of its democracy. But for Black Americans, the next betrayal is usually lurking in the house next door. We recover at our peril.
*This article appears in the January 4, 2021, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!