I have been thinking about Stone Mountain—the misguided veneration etched into its quartz face, the cross that Simmons and his cohorts set afire at its base—because it is in DeKalb County, a majority-Black county in north-central Georgia whose votes seemed to secure victories for the Democratic Senate candidates Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff. Their victories, along with Vice President–elect Kamala Harris’s tie-breaking vote, will give their party a majority in the U.S. Senate and transform the possibilities for what a Joe Biden presidency might look like.
Seeing the extraordinary leads that Warnock and Ossoff ran up in DeKalb—as of yesterday, Warnock had received 84 percent of the vote and Ossoff had received 83.4 percent—I began thinking of the Black people in that county, and across Georgia, who voted in this election but were alive when casting such a vote was not possible.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed the racist, discriminatory voting practices of states in the former Confederacy, was signed only 55 years ago. Hundreds of thousands of Black Georgians, and millions of Black people across the South and across the country, remember when the idea of voting was simply that: an idea.
There are Black people still alive today who couldn’t register to vote without the threat of violence hanging over them. There are Black people still alive today who couldn’t vote, because of poll taxes. There are Black people still alive today who couldn’t vote, because of spurious literacy tests. To prevent Black people from having access to the franchise, some election officials quizzed them about how many bubbles are in a bar of soap or asked them to count the pieces of candy in a jar. There are Black people still alive today who cannot forget that era.
As I was watching what the Black voters of Georgia did Tuesday night, I couldn’t stop thinking about all the history that preceded that moment—the history that’s not just in textbooks or in black-and-white documentary-film footage, but that’s alive in people’s bones and in their memories. A history of oppression, a history of having been made into a lower, legally disenfranchised caste in the American hierarchy. Georgia didn’t simply enact voter disenfranchisement; in some ways, the state pioneered it.
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The poll tax, for example, was initiated by Georgia in 1871 and by 1877 mandated that people must pay all back taxes in order to vote, a move that legislators knew would disproportionately affect poor Black farmers. By 1904, realizing the efficacy of the policy to disenfranchise Black people without saying so directly, every former Confederate state had done the same. According to the historian J. Morgan Kousser, the Georgia poll tax cut Black turnout in half. The enormous Black turnout in Tuesday’s Senate runoff election was a repudiation of that history. The irony is that the Georgia runoff system, which has now allowed Democrats to take back control of the U.S. Senate, was put in place with the specific intention of suppressing Black political power and making it more difficult for Black-supported candidates to win.