Convergence / Politics / Vol. 1 No. 3-4

Ballot Box Terror and The Impossibility of the Black Vote

Manny Hughes Stories Leg Head Foot

Image Credit: Manny Hughes, Stories – Leg Head Foot, (2007), 12″ X 12″ oil on panel

The slave, the nigger, the Negro, the Colored, the Afro-American, the African American, the Black does not and has never had the right to vote. To riff off of Calvin Warren’s assertion, “the figure [of the free Black] does not exist. It is impossible for any Black to be free in an anti-black world.” Black voting rights—much like the free Black as figure, trope, and personification—is an oxymoron; a lie; a fairytale.1 The notion of “rights” is, indeed, tainted by the white supremacist categories of Man and citizenship—categories that have historically and historiographically centralized an anti-Black racial animus replete with exclusion and death by asphyxiation. To be Black means that one does not have a vote, or a say in “the State of the Union.” Certainly, the ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870 was a striking moment in American history such that all men without regard to “race, color, or previous condition of servitude” were allegedly granted “the right” to vote. Yet, the American ballot—like many other ballots in the modern world—is deeply entangled with the rope of the neoplantocratic lynching tree and contemporary Black Codes, which squeeze life out of the Black on her way to, while she is in, and on her way out of the voting booth.

While lamenting the unrelenting persistence of Klan violence, the formidable anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells-Barnett wrote in 1910, just forty years after the ratification of the 15th Amendment, “The Negro has been given separate and inferior schools, because he has no ballot…His only weapon of defense has been taken from him by legal enactment in all of the old confederacy—and the United States Government.” She writes later, “[w]ith no sacredness of the ballot there can be no sacredness of human life itself.” These words were included in a piece entitled “How Enfranchisement Stops Lynching.”2 How did the same Wells-Barnett who published Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases (1892) and The Red Record (1895) come to find solace, or hope, in an American democratic process—specifically voting—created by planters and their lynch mob children, who sent postcards to their parents saying, “This is the barbecue we had last night”?3

Such a query is also intimately connected to the November 9, 2016 election of Donald J. Trump—an election that followed the eight-year presidency of Barack Obama, and the Black Lives Matter Movement, a response to the state-sanctioned violence of Black people; violence that seemed to intensify under a “Black-led” national administration. What does it mean for those affixed within the Black Radical Tradition to believe in the American political schema, which routinizes Black death and celebrates Black suffering? What does it mean to be hopeful in the power of the ballot or “enfranchisement” to stop bullets, to shred lynch mob ropes, to halt Klan rallies, to quiet the red hat wearing, “Make America Great Again” white masses?

Indeed, the long Civil Rights Movement, as the historian Jacquelyn Dowd Hall once called it, was a viable force of mobilization among Black people, primarily poor and working class Black people, who demanded the recognition of their civil and human rights. Yet, one must think critically about the movement’s aims. A demand for a right to live was the most prominent force for hitting the streets, organizing in church basements, and marching on the nation’s capital. Yet another series of demands were stitched to this most basic insistence, motivated by an unquenchable desire for inclusion in the American project—which according to many of the movement’s leaders, necessitated integration and by extension, de-segregation. As many scholars have argued, the Black middle class was responsible for this stitching due to a desire for wealth—as the mode of inclusion—and by certain accounts they were the ones who hijacked the broader movement.4

However, even the “charismatic man” who is often shortsightedly cast as the Black male hero of the Civil Rights Movement—the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—said at one point between 1963 and 1968, “I’ve come upon something that disturbs me deeply. We have fought hard and long for integration, as I believe we should have, and I know we will win, but I have come to believe that we are integrating into a burning house.”5 White supremacists would later assassinate King at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968.

Nonetheless, King’s reticence echoes in the words of Zora Neale Hurston, who while critiquing the desegregation of rural Southern schools amidst the Brown v. Board of Education proceedings, asked, “How much satisfaction can I get from a court order for somebody to associate with me who does not wish me near them?” Hurston further stressed how integration was an affront to Black teachers, many of them working class Black women: “[i]f there are not adequate Negro schools in Florida, and there is some residual, some inherent and unchangeable quality in white schools, impossible to duplicate anywhere else, then I am the first to insist that Negro children of Florida be allowed to share this boon…But if there are adequate Negro schools and prepared instructors and instructions, then there is nothing different except the presence of white people.”6

Even with these critiques of integration and the white American project in mind, it would be a grave historical and ethical problem to erase the contributions of such persons as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Ella Baker, Septima Clark, Malcolm X, Robert F. Williams, Shirley Chisholm, Mary McLeod Bethune, among many others whose lives underscored the significance of political engagement, debate, protest, and speaking back to those who held public office. Yet, even those ancestors—the same ancestors whom many claim died for the right to vote—were in varying ways cynical of the ballot’s ability to end the unrelenting brutalities of racial and sexual terrorism in the United States and across the globe. Fannie Lou Hamer’s testimony before the Credentials Committee of the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey on August 22, 1964 abounds with what Saidiya Hartman has called “the coerced spectacles orchestrated to encourage the trade in Black flesh; scenes of torture and festivity.”7 The scenes of subjection therein demonstrate the fallacy of Black progress narratives, especially as Hamer, the sharecropper and voting rights activist, names the same terrors that her parents experienced as enslaved Africans. Her being brought in to speak for enfranchisement necessitated the reiteration of subjection, whereby her testimony makes the case for the impossibility of black voting rights.

Scene I.

It was the 31st of August in 1962 that eighteen of us traveled twenty-six miles to the county courthouse in Indianola to try to register to become first-class citizens.

Scene II.

And June the 9th, 1963, I had attended a voter registration workshop; was returning back to Mississippi. Ten of us was traveling by the Continental Trailway bus. When we got to Winona, Mississippi, which is Montgomery County, four of the people got off to use the washroom, and two of the people – to use the restaurant – two of the people wanted to use the washroom.

I was carried to the county jail and put in the booking room. They left some of the people in the booking room and began to place us in cells. I was placed in a cell with a young woman called Miss Ivesta Simpson. After I was placed in the cell I began to hear sounds of licks and screams, I could hear the sounds of licks and horrible screams. And I could hear somebody say, “Can you say, ‘yes, sir,’ nigger? Can you say ‘yes, sir’?”

Scene III.

I was carried out of that cell into another cell where they had two Negro prisoners. The State Highway Patrolmen ordered the first Negro to take the Blackjack.

I laid on my face and the first Negro began to beat. I was beat by the first Negro until he was exhausted. I was holding my hands behind me at that time on my left side, because I suffered from polio when I was six years old.

After the first Negro had beat until he was exhausted, the State Highway Patrolman ordered the second Negro to take the Blackjack.

The second Negro began to beat and I began to work my feet, and the State Highway Patrolman ordered the first Negro who had beat me to sit on my feet – to keep me from working my feet. I began to scream and one white man got up and began to beat me in my head and tell me to hush.

One white man—my dress had worked up high—he walked over and pulled my dress—I pulled my dress down and he pulled my dress back up.8

Hamer’s testimony, like so many of the Black churchgoing people and civil rights organizers whom she labored beside, speaks to the impossibility of Black voting rights. If a “vote” and “the right to vote” further routinizes and spectacularizes anti-Black racial animus, patriarchal violence, and poverty, then said vote or right ultimately hinders the viability of total Black liberation. Hamer teaches us that the vote and the right to vote are deceptive stand-ins for multiple unfreedoms.

Bearing Hamer’s words in mind, the 2016 election was significant, given that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a wartime hawk and neoliberal, white corporate feminist, lost to an alleged child rapist, celebrity television star, Islamophobic, openly white supremacist, “pussy grabbing” white man named Donald Trump.9 Both have had horrendous track records with regards to the Black working class and poor. Clinton used unpaid Black prison labor while First Lady of Arkansas. Trump purchased a full-page New York Times takedown of the Central Park Five. Of course, Clinton’s expertise in American government far exceeded that of Trump. Clinton was “more qualified” to run an empire than Trump, an unrepentant racist, even as Clinton only ceremoniously repented to garner the Black vote.10 Many said that Clinton would save us from a white supremacist reality, and yet, not even a Black president being in the White House could save Michael Brown or Aiyana Stanley-Jones. And here we are, living under a Trump presidency where several pieces of legislation are in question, and Black death remains status quo. Stephon Clark. Twenty Shots.


1 Calvin Warren, Ontological Terror: Blackness, Nihilism and Emancipation (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018), 16.
2 Ida B. Wells-Barnett, “How Enfranchisement Stops Lynching,” Original Rights Magazine, vol. I, no. 4 (June 1910): 42-52, photocopy, 5 p., Box 8, Folder 8, Ida B. Wells Papers, University of Chicago.
3 See James Allen, Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography In America (Santa Fe, New Mexico: Twin Palms Publishers, 2000).
4 See for example, Manning Marable, How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America: Problems In Race, Political Economy, and Society (Cambridge: South End Press, 1983); Cornel West, Race Matters (New York: Vintage Books, 1994); Robin D. G. Kelley, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (Boston: Beacon Press, 2002); and Erica R. Edwards, Charisma and the Fictions of Black Leadership (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012).
6 Zora Neale Hurston, Letter to the Orlando Sentinel, August 11, 1955.
7 Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 22.
8 Fannie Lou Hamer, Testimony Before the Credentials Committee, Democratic National Convention (Atlantic City, New Jersey, August 22, 1964).
9 See Ahmad Greene-Hayes, “Donald Trump: Racist, Alleged Child Rapist, and President-Elect,” Abolition Journal, November 28, 2016.
10 Here I use “more qualified” because empire has historically tended to insist on its moral legitimacy, which since at least the 70s—with unreliable force—has demanded liberalist, inclusionary rhetoric (to keep up the ruse of a moral society/further dissimulate the violence upon which the liberal constitutional regime is predicated). Trump has been unwilling to “play ball” in that regard (of course, it worked for him) appearing to make him less qualified to speak for power. (Note of thanks to Ellen Louis).

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