Black Voters Understood What the Stakes Were

For those who remember the history of disenfranchisement, what happened in Georgia was especially poignant.

A person wearing a Black Lives Matter face mask.
Brynn Anderson / AP

About the author: Clint Smith is a staff writer at The Atlantic. He is the author of the poetry collection Counting Descent and the narrative nonfiction book How the Word Is Passed.

Chiseled into the side of Stone Mountain, a quartz monzonite dome in Georgia that arches nearly 1,700 feet toward the sky, are the likenesses of three Confederate leaders—President Jefferson Davis and Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Each is shown holding his hat over his heart, and each rides on the back of a horse whose body melts into the stone. This is the largest Confederate memorial in the country, an homage to treasonous white supremacists who fought a war to maintain the institution of slavery. Its construction began in 1916. It was completed in 1972—more than a century after the cause that it celebrates was officially defeated.

But even before these men’s likenesses were carved into the enormous rock, Stone Mountain was already the site of a white-supremacist resurgence. In 1915, a man named William J. Simmons—having been inspired by D. W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation, which opened that yearled a group of 15 men to the mountain, where they burned a cross and brought the Ku Klux Klan back to life after it had been largely dormant for years. An Atlanta newspaper’s headline at the time declared KLAN IS ESTABLISHED WITH IMPRESSIVENESS.

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.

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.

The grassroots organization Black Voters Matter says it knocked on 2 million doors in 2020. LaTosha Brown, one of the group’s co-founders, often tells a story about being 6 years old in 1976 and going to vote with her grandmother, who was born in 1910 and could not vote for a significant portion of her life. When going to the polls, Brown told The New York Times, her grandmother dressed in her Sunday best. From the way she held Brown’s hand, the young girl could sense how meaningful it was for her grandmother to be able to close those curtains behind her and cast her vote. “It was like it was her moment. She had complete agency,” Brown said. Her grandmother wasn’t the only one who knew not to take this for granted. Her grandfather carried an old poll-tax receipt with him in his wallet.

Many Black people across the country have heard stories like these from their elders—people who remember what it was like to live in a place that stripped them of the ability to participate in voting for the people and policies that shaped their lives. It is a story that exists across the South. But the Georgia results reveal how the large Black populations in many of these states can exert their political power in profound new ways. Stone Mountain symbolizes how white supremacy has animated the history of Georgia politics, and the ongoing attempt to overturn the presidential election shows how fragile democracy is. But progress is possible. Brown, the former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, and many other organizers across the state helped make something that once seemed a distant dream to Democrats into a new reality.