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

The Voting Rights Act Without Tears

LBJ and MLK

Image Credit: President Lyndon B. Johnson goes to shake Martin Luther King Jr.’s hand on Aug. 6, 1965, at the Signing of the Voting Rights Act in the Capitol Rotunda. (Yoichi R. Okamoto/LBJ Library)

Somewhere below ground in Waco, Texas, the doomed moderate Belton Piedmont addresses the secretive all-black government in the final chapters of Sutton E. Griggs’s 1899 Afrofuturist novel Imperium in Imperio. A self-avowed patriot, Piedmont hopes to stave off the armed race war envisioned by his friend and revolutionary rival, Bernard Belgrave. The hour has come “for wreaking vengeance for our multiplied wrongs,’” Belgrave has just announced. Because the ballot box, “the means of peaceful revolution, is denied us,’” Black Americans must “at once proceed to war.’” The Imperium roars its “unanimous, vociferous” approval, but Piedmont, the soul hold-out, urges a more “impartial view” (Griggs 152). The root of American racism is not democracy, he argues, but its sentimental distortion:

“The ballot is supposed to be an expression of opinion. It is a means employed to record men’s ideas. It is not designed as a vehicle of prejudice or gratitude, but of thought, opinion. When the Negro was first given the ballot he used it to convey expressions of love and gratitude to the North, while it bore to the South a message of hate and revenge. […]

“The ballot was never designed for such a purpose. The white man snatched the ballot from the Negro. His only crime was, in not snatching it from him also, for he was voting on the same principle. Neither race was thinking. They were both simply feeling, and ballots are not meant to convey feelings.” (Griggs 160-1)

Piedmont declares the ersatz theatrics of sentimentalism toxic to American racial politics. Adherence to “the dictates of love and hate” highjacks reasoned deliberation by reducing civic governance to an arbitrary pastiche of private sensibility. Indeed, when voting becomes a sentimental privilege, democracy contracts, pinching the public domain into a neo-domestic zone of white discretionary preference and racial restriction. Usurped by an affective vocabulary of love, aversion, extremism, and terror, American politics become a matter of feeling, not thinking. The question is “not whether we as a society have created unjust (and violent) social hierarchies, but whether we as individuals hate anyone” (Jakobsen and Pellegrini 58). As critics from James Baldwin to Saidiya Hartman have observed, sentiment “sanctions black subordination because affinity and desire ultimately eclipse equality” (Hartman 10).

This may be one reason that Griggs locates the Imperium in an underground Afrofuturist space evocative of both the deathly cargo holds of the Middle Passage and the hidden tracks of the underground railroad (see Johnson). Anticipating Pauline Hopkins’s mystical city of Meroe and Black Panther’s sub-Saharan paradise of Wakanda, Griggs critiques sentimentalism’s amnesiac fantasy of temporal closure by creating a present that simultaneously engages the past. Yet despite his confidence in re-enfranchisement, it would take more than a half century for Griggs’s anti-sentimental vision to found its way into federal law. The 1965 passage of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) marked the belated rejection of nearly a century of sentimental state privacy claims. The new law banned any “test or device” that required a would-be voter to
(1) demonstrate the ability to read, write, understand, or interpret any matter, (2) demonstrate any educational achievement or his knowledge of any particular subject, (3) possess good moral character, or (4) prove his qualifications by the voucher of registered voters or members of any other class.

Taken together, the VRA’s proscriptions targeted the tenets of sentimental culture—where literacy functioned as an unequal point of entry to an imaginative culture of liberal individualism; where education reproduced these differences through curricula and access; where “good moral character” prioritized nebulous affinities of race and class; and where vouchers ensured a closed circuit of mutually-reinforcing insiders. In seeking “a fair and equitable solution” to decades of Black disfranchisement, Republican Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen introduced the bill by cautioning against “emotion and sentimentality, prejudice, and politics” (Landmark 400). Dirksen’s words echoed those of Martin Luther King, Jr., who in 1957 had called for “calm and yet positive leadership.” “This is no day for the rabble-rouser,” King said in his famous “Give Us the Ballot” speech. “We must realize that we are grappling with such a complex problem there is no place for misguided emotionalism” (King).

Congressional opponents of the VRA, however, immediately assumed the posture of sentimental outrage. If Black people in Alabama didn’t vote, then, according to one representative, it was because they “simply want nothing to do with voting for personal reasons” (111 Cong. Rec. A1593 [1965]). States, not people of color, were the objects of Southern empathy. As Virginia Senator Harry F. Byrd insisted, “bias and prejudice” were evident in the bill’s “discrimination as between States” (111 Cong. Rec. A1706 [1965]). Ignoring racial voting barriers that ran “the gamut from economic intimidation to murder,” in the words of Stokely Carmichael, the VRA’s adversaries instead saw themselves as the victims of discrimination (Ture and Hamilton 100). The bill’s coverage formula was a particular source of grievance. Section 4 required states and political subdivisions determined to have a history of racial disfranchisement to seek Justice Department preclearance before altering their voting regulations. Alabama’s James D. Martin called Section 4 “a dagger at the heart and soul of the South” that would “practically [eliminate]” Dixie “from the national family” (111 Cong. Rec. 24193 [1965]). Robert E. Jones, Jr. expressed similar indignation that a bill could “inflict such arrant discrimination on my own State of Alabama and her southern neighbors” for the “alleged sins of the past” (111 Cong. Rec. 16274 [1965]). Although less than four months had elapsed since “the bull-whips, the tear gas, the flogging” in Selma, Jones showed no compunction in asserting that the VRA had been designed “to coerce the South, to whip it into line” (111 Cong. Rec. 4467 [1965]). The bill, said North Carolina Senator Sam Ervin, would “lynch provisions of the Constitution” (Landmark 406).

Signed into law on August 6, 1965, the VRA would block more than 3000 discriminatory voting measures in the decades to come. With the arrival of the Reagan revolution in the 1980s, however, pressure began to mount for its overturn. In Whose Votes Count? Affirmative Action and Minority Voting Rights (1987), conservative critic Abigail Thernstrom called the VRA “affirmative action in the electoral sphere” (233). A temporary and limited measure designed only to address “intentionally fraudulent” stratagems like literacy tests that “purposefully manipulated to disfranchise blacks,” Thernstrom said, was now being used to guarantee what “the likelihood that blacks will gain the legislative seats to which they appear entitled” (233, 59, 4, emphasis added). Rejecting such appeals to innocent motives, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall recognized that discriminatory intent was an impossibly high burden of proof in cases of voter disfranchisement. “[A] standard based solely upon the motives of official decisionmakers” required “an unguided, tortuous look into the minds of officials in the hope of guessing why certain policies were adopted and others rejected” (Marshall 55, emphasis added). It short, it required a journey into the sentimental, where the performance of right feeling masked what Baldwin knew to be an historical “catalogue of violence” (Baldwin 12).

The same year that Thernstrom published Whose Votes Count?, Derrick Bell brought out And We Are Not Saved: The Elusive Quest for Racial Justice, an Afrofuturist critique of anti-VRA sentimentalism. Alternating between speculative “chronicle” and Platonic legal dialogue, Bell’s hybrid novel centers on Geneva Crenshaw, a civil rights lawyer whose Freedom Summer trauma has made her mind “[wander] in realms where medical science could not follow” (Bell 21). Chronicles are Bell’s genre of trauma. Unlike sentimental narratives of liberal individualism, in which “each life [is] insular and free from previous generations,” Geneva’s chronicles collapse the historical past and the notional future in the ongoing ordeal of the present (Soderbergh 243). Indeed, if chronicles are “strictly speaking, open-ended” and “can go on indefinitely,” in the words of Hayden White, then they serve Bell’s purposes, resisting sentimentalism’s mollifying closures (White 7). Armed with the pessimism of Jeremiah—“The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved”—Geneva acknowledges her “still-racist society”: “It’s not just a matter of feeling […]. It’s history! From the very beginning of this nation, blacks have been the exploited, the excluded, and often the exterminated” (Bell 72). Geneva implies that Black survival is itself an act of Afrofuturism, for as Walidah Imarisha has noted, in “communities with historic collective trauma […] each of us is already science fiction walking around on two legs” (Imarisha 11).

In “The Chronicle of the Ultimate Voting Rights Act,” Geneva dives into a river to save a drowning white senator who is the author of a racist reapportionment bill that “would make it virtually impossible for blacks to gain election to the state legislature or any statewide office” (80). As his car sinks into the river, a mystical vision of Geneva convinces the senator that “This is your chance!” (80). He subsequently withdraws his gerrymandering bill and proposes a $100 tax rebate for the travel and expense of voting and a Racial Proportionate Representation Bill to ensure Black citizens a “fair share of all elective positions” (87). Despite his Afrofuturist experience, however, the senator’s actions are pure sentimentalism. Realizing that “White people, too, must be saved,” he decides that “it was the white people I was keeping down,” by limiting Black representation, “while the blacks were able to enjoy the heaven-on-earth satisfaction that comes to all those who labor under the lash of their fellow men” (87, 84). As Geneva grimly realizes, racial justice requires an ongoing appeal to what Baldwin called the “excessive and spurious emotion” of American sentimentality (Baldwin 12). If the senator’s maudlin reframing of the “Ultimate Voting Rights Act” casts voting rights as “the gratuitous dividends” of white feeling, however, Geneva’s chronicles themselves offer a resistant alternative (96). In grounding “the task of liberation” in “the battleground of experience,” her mystical cohort of Black female sages, the Celestial Curia, remind us that chronicles are not “metaphorical essays on the plight of blacks,” but instead material narratives of trauma and persistence (253). Like Griggs, Bell imagines a textual transformation that will one day turn the ballot from a sentimental narrative into an Afrofuturist text.

Works Cited
Baldwin, James. Collected Essays. Ed. Toni Morrison. Library of America, 1998.
Griggs, Sutton E. Imperium in Imperio. 1899. Modern Library Classics, 2007.
Hartman, Saidiya V. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. Oxford UP, 1997.
Imarisha, Walidah. “Introduction.” Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements. Eds. Walidah Imarisha, and adrienne maree brown, AK Press, 2015, pp. 10-11. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/columbia/detail.action?docID=1996052. Accessed 7 April 2018.
Jakobsen, Janet R. and Ann Pellegrini. Love the Sin: Sexual Regulation and the Limits of Religious Tolerance. Beacon, 2004.
Johnson, Lynn R. “A Return to the Black (W)Hole: Mitigating the Trauma of Homelessness in Sutton E. Griggs’s Imperium in Imperio.” Southern Literary Journal, vol. 42, no. 2, 2010, pp. 12-33,153, http://ezproxy.cul.columbia.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.cul.columbia.edu/docview/603218209?accountid=10226. Accessed 1 Jun 2018.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. Ed. James Melvin Washington. HarperOne, 1986.
Landmark Debates in Congress: From the Declaration of Independence to the War in Iraq. Ed. Stephen W. Stathis. CQ Press, 2009. http://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781452240145.n45. Accessed 21 June 2017.
Marshall, Thurgood. Dissenting opinion. City of Mobile, Alabama v. Bolden. United States Reports, vol. 446, 22 Apr. 1980, pp.103-141. Justia, https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/446/55/case.html.
Soderbergh, Laura. “One More Time with Feeling: Repetition, Reparation, and the Sentimental Subject in William Wells Brown’s Rewritings of Clotel,” American Literature vol. 88, no. 2, 2016, pp. 241-267, https://doi-org.ezproxy.cul.columbia.edu/10.1215/00029831-3533290. Accessed 8 Apr. 2018.
Thernstrom, Abigail. Whose Vote Counts? Affirmative Action and Minority Voting Rights. Harvard UP, 1987.
Ture, Kwame and Charles V. Hamilton. Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America. 1967. Vintage, 1972.
United States, Congress. Congressional Record, vol. 111, 1965. 89th Congress, 1st session.
“Voting Rights Act of 1965; August 6, 1965.” The Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy, Yale Law School, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/voting_rights_1965.asp. Accessed 30 May 2018.
White, Hayden V. Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe. Johns Hopkins UP, 1973. http://hdl.handle.net.ezproxy.cul.columbia.edu/2027/heb.04928.0001.001.73. Accessed 18 April 2018.

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