Remembering when blacks almost never voted and why minorities and ex-felons are still disenfranchised

Photo by Hill Street Studios/Getty Images.

In South Mississippi where I grew up, Black people almost never voted.

The reason was simple: When they were bold enough to try to register, the elections supervisors often required them to pay a “poll tax” or pass a complex literacy test with obscure questions most of us could not have answered.

Black veterans who returned to Mississippi after having fought in World War II were among those who attempted to vote – without success.

In Mississippi only a fraction of the 5,000 Black voters who were registered to vote in 1946 actually got to vote. Similar statistics were noted in other Southern states.

All these difficulties gave birth to the marches of the 1960s, when Martin Luther King Jr. and other advocates for people of color began to lead voter registration drives in Mississippi and other Southern states. The resistance of election officials was almost comical had it not been so tragic.

In 1966, during the march across Mississippi sparked by the shooting of James Meredith, a black man who had the nerve to enroll at Ole Miss (University of Mississippi) in 1962, things got serious.

I was a young reporter from Florida who happened to be visiting relatives in the Mississippi Delta not far from the path of the Meredith March, when editors suggested I file a story or two from the march.

Officials in Grenada followed Black voters trying to register to vote with spray cans of room deodorizer, spraying the air behind them as they walked through the courthouse.

It was totally unlike the “southern hospitality’’ Mississippi usually displays to visitors.  But the message was clear.

I thought I knew Mississippi until I walked into the Courthouse Square at Grenada where a crowd of would-be voters gathered to try to register to vote.

King, Stokley Carmichael and other legends of the Civil Rights era were everywhere. King was such an icon that the crowd worshipped him.  I saw elderly women fall to their knees and kiss his feet in grateful thanks for his help.

King summoned all of the people of color to a meeting in a nearby auditorium to give them advice on how they too could register to vote.

I’d like to give you details of what he said, but King ordered all of us who were White out of the meeting.  It was part of his way to force the nation’s news media to hire Black reporters.

At the time I wasn’t very happy about this, but as I watched events of the coming years, I understood.  It worked.  Television networks and newspapers hired people of color as they broadened their own understanding of the situation.

Although people of color now register to vote in most states these days, the fight is not over.

Laws that have stripped convicted felons of the right to vote with little hope of regaining it, contribute to this disenfranchisement.

These bans grew in the Jim Crow era.  In Alabama, the president of the Constitutional Convention argued that ballots should be manipulated to exclude blacks because they were inferior to Whites and the state needed to avert the “menace of Negro domination.’’

The debate was different in states like Maine and Vermont, where Black residents are almost non-existent.  Neither state puts restrictions on voting rights for people convicted of even serious crimes and inmates are allowed to vote from prison.

And so we come to Florida, where felons have historically been denied the right to vote without going through a cumbersome process before the Governor and Cabinet that is frequently futile.

When this issue was put to a vote in 2018, some 65 percent of Florida voters approved giving felons the right to vote.

Since then, Republicans have fought to force felons who want to vote to first pay all fines and fees associated with their convictions. Opponents have labeled the fees a modern day poll tax designed to prevent ex-felons, particularly minorities, from voting.

Last year the Legislature passed, and Gov. Ron DeSantis approved, a bill that would require felons to pay all financial obligations before they can vote.

The American Civil Liberties Union has argued that the situation has created a chilling effect on voters who fear prosecution.

On Wednesday the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeal in Atlanta upheld the decision of U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle of Tallahassee, ruling the requirement to pay fines and fees is unconstitutional.

Several Republican legislators say the issue will first have to go to the U.S. Supreme Court before ex-felons can actually vote.

It is yet another way to deny the vote to citizens who might oppose current incumbents.