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Yale 62

Thoughts on Voting and Voter Suppression

By Jim Lewis

“Yale to jail” within 32 months!  This begins my “career path” and explains my concern for the right to vote.

One of my arrests

In January 1965, just a few years after graduation from Yale, I took time off from law school to be a civil rights worker in southwest Mississippi.  In February 1965, I joined fifty friends in a peaceful protest in Magnolia, Mississippi, because African Americans could not register and vote.  On the third day, the Mississippi Highway Patrol arrived and announced that we were under arrest.  We knelt and they took us away.  After three days, we were all released on bail.  And then, in June 1965, I joined 800 friends in a similar and peaceful voting rights protest in Jackson, the state capital, and we were all promptly arrested.  Twelve days later, we were all freed on bail.

In August 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act.  Once this act passed, thousands of African Americans were able to register and vote.  We appreciated this.  The people in power did not share our appreciation.

Why did we — and why do we — have such differences about voting, connected to race?  There’s a history [which explains it], an American history.  We started to create these race-based differences in 1619, when colonists in Virginia initiated their House of Burgesses, leading toward self-government; at the same time, these same colonists began to trade for people taken from Africa and to enslave them as “property,” never to vote.  Our country tried to eliminate these race-based differences through the Civil War, the Fifteenth Amendment and Reconstruction (1865-1876), but the south brought an end to Reconstruction and re-established these race-based differences, first through violence (1876-1890) and then through the Mississippi Constitution of 1890, copied across the southern states, with voting rules that remained in effect until the Voting Rights Act.

In 1966, I completed law school and became a Mississippi civil rights lawyer.  In November 1967, Mississippi had state-wide elections — desegregated elections.  Alongside others, I helped to prepare African American candidates and their poll-watchers, and to represent several of the more than a dozen winning candidates.  Over time, more African Americans won local, county, judicial, state legislative and national legislative elections, and Mississippi now has more African American elected officials than any other state.

Jim with the late Congressman John Lewis

This change required risk, effort and sacrifice.  And every such change brought resistance.  The original impulse, going back to 1619, to establish and enjoy political (as well as economic and social) advantage based on race — that impulse has always existed.  That impulse supported centuries of enslavement, spurred a bloody Civil War, continued during Reconstruction, served to re-establish white control in 1876, sustained decades of segregation, spurred more white resistance during the civil rights movement, and continues today.  We’re not naïve — it didn’t go away. It continues today.

Let me close with three questions.  First, is this impulse, this white resistance, much of the foundation for voter suppression efforts today?  In 1890, people figured out how to formalize and “legitimize” this impulse in the Mississippi Constitution, just as people are similarly figuring out how to formalize and “legitimize” this impulse today.  This formalized resistance aims at the basic mechanics of registration (disenfranchising felons, “updating” to take people off the voter rolls) and voting (limiting days and hours for voting, changing procedures in polling places). It also aims to “legitimize” the authority to reject the result of voting and let the legislature substitute its own choice.  Will voters choose representatives?  Or will representatives choose who can vote, and nullify votes that they do not appreciate?

Second, for people of good will — what should we do?  When I was first arrested in 1965, I asked my mentor, an Episcopalian minister, where this struggle was heading.  His answer: “We must continue to push.  They will continue to push against us.  If we stop, they win.”  Since this impulse, this white resistance, will not simply go away, then we who oppose this race-based resistance cannot simply turn away.

Jim Lewis today

Third, is there actually an answer?  Yes, if we face up to and learn from problems within our history.  The Virginia colonists did not see any shared humanity with the African Americans.  The southern power structure did not see any shared humanity.  Our country as a whole has often been unable to acknowledge our shared humanity.  Today, many in our political parties are often unable to acknowledge the humanity that they share with others in another party.  If we as people can face our problems and learn our lessons, in order to acknowledge and commit to our shared humanity–and to act upon this commitment–then we will increase the likelihood of good decisions and a good result, reducing our uncivil wars, reducing the distance between us, and approaching the American — the human — promise.

We all have eyes and ears and minds and hearts and hands and bodies — and we all should have the right to express our voice and participate and vote and have our vote counted.  Let’s continue to push for this.  “If we stop, they win.”

P.S.  I have a memoir.  It’s free.  It’s good.  Just send me your mailing address, and I’ll mail it.

After seven years as a Mississippi civil rights lawyer, Jim went on to teach law school, work for the U. S. Department of Justice, serve as United States Attorney (2010-2016), and retire.


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1 comment to Thoughts on Voting and Voter Suppression

  • Stephen Buck

    Bravo! Thank you Jim for such a thorough history of keeping keeping blacks down. I find it very sad that after 400 years this is still an issue, with the latest excuse being alleged voter irregularities. 60 suits have been found to have no basis in fact by judges appointed by Republican and Democratic presidents.