“Jarvious Cotton cannot vote. Like his father, grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather, he has been denied the right to participate in our electoral democracy. Cotton’s family tree tells the story of several generations of black men who were born in the United States but who were denied the most basic freedom that democracy promises—the freedom to vote for those who will make the rules and laws that govern one’s life. Cotton’s great-great-grandfather could not vote as a slave. His great-grandfather was beaten to death by the Ku Klux Klan for attempting to vote. His grandfather was prevented from voting by Klan intimidation. His father was barred from voting by poll taxes and literacy tests. Today, Jarvious Cotton cannot vote because he, like many black men in the United States, has been labeled a felon and is currently on parole.”
-Introduction to The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
The Founding Fathers drew up a rough sketch of a magnificent house of freedom, but it is the people they left out who are the true architects. They—the disenfranchised blacks and later, other people of color, women, gay people, and some white males— have also been the construction crew, doing the back-breaking labor to build room after room and furnish it accordingly. They are the true patriots who have built and continue to build the promises of a government “for the people, by the people and of the people.”
Meanwhile, other folks (mostly white and now Republican who should be tried for treason) keep sabotaging the plans, terrorizing the construction site and defacing the building. They lie, cheat and rig the system without consequence or shame, as did Georgia’s Governor Kemp shutting down votes in 2018 to get elected, as did the judge and jury who just let Breonna Taylor’s murderer off with a tiny slap of the hand.
Let’s look at voting, a cornerstone of the whole edifice. A thumbnail history that they don’t teach in schools:
1776—The Declaration of Independence
“All men are created equal with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and pursuit of happiness…to secure these rights governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
Except that no slave consented to be enslaved and no enslaved person was guaranteed
“life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
1787—The Great Compromise
Four years after the end of the Revolutionary War, the thirteen colonies decided they needed a more central government and convened to draft a new Constitution to supplant the earlier Articles of Confederation of 1777. Having decided that representation in the lower Congress (the House of Representatives) was based on population of free men, the Southern States lobbied for including their slave population. “The Great Compromise” granted those states the right to count 3/5ths of their slave population, which gave them a disproportionate representation in the House.
1789—The First Presidential Election
Who could vote in this new land “of the people”? White males who own property. What percent “of the people” were they? 6%! (Out of a population of some 2.5million, 150,00 people got to vote).
And so our country was founded on the premise of “liberty and justice for all,” but the “all” turned out to be 6%. Of course, we were young, just starting out, trying things out and had time to see the error of our ways and expand that percentage to include all those excluded politically at the start. Surely things would get better.
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