The power of the Black vote matters more than ever
Dr. Marvin McMickle
October 21, 2019
On August 20, 1999, the Ohio Klavern of the Ku Klux Klan held a rally in downtown Cleveland, Ohio. At that time, I was in my 12th year as pastor of Antioch Baptist Church in Cleveland. I had served two terms as President of the local NAACP chapter, and in 1999 I was involved in planning the city’s reaction to a Klan rally. Many in the city were deeply concerned about what would happen when the KKK showed up with their robes, their hoods, their banners, and their hateful rhetoric wrapped in a presumption of patriotism and Christian piety.
As I wrote in a newspaper editorial that appeared the day before the Klan rally in Cleveland,[i] I was less concerned than many others, largely because of an earlier encounter I had with the Ohio Klavern of the KKK. One week earlier, the same Klan group had rallied in the town square of nearby Painesville, Ohio, a smaller town to the east of Cleveland. In that instance, a rally in opposition to the KKK was held two days before the Klan rally, at a church just feet away from where the Klan rally was scheduled to be held. I offered a brief presentation on the history of the KKK dating back to the Reconstruction era in US history in the late 1860s.
Following my presentation, I asked if there were any questions. One hand was raised right away by someone in the back of the room. To our surprise as an anti-Klan gathering, the person asked, “would you like to hear the KKK side of the story?” I responded by saying that I would welcome such a response if anyone was on hand to represent that point of view. That person answered by saying he was the leader of the Ohio Klavern, and that he was willing to speak if the group was willing to listen. I invited him to the front out of curiosity as to what “the Klan point of view” might be in 1999.
When he arrived at the front, he extended his hand and I reached out to shake hands with him. He said, “I bet this is the first time you ever shook hands with a Klansman.” I responded by saying it was the first time I had ever knowingly done so! He then proceeded to make his statement. How surprised he was, that without any pre-planning or coordination, the entire assembly of over 500 persons seated in chairs in the church’s fellowship hall picked up their chairs, turned their backs to the Klansman, and began to sing “We Shall Overcome” so that his attempts to speak his message of hate was drowned out by those voices singing a message of hope. I knew then, as I continue to know today, that while the message of the KKK continues to be spoken by people who embrace a policy of white supremacy, the KKK is a symbol of a vanished era. The KKK and other white nationalist and Nazi groups will not and cannot prevail in this country because of one overriding factor; the power of the black vote!
If the KKK could not make an impression in Painesville, a town with largely white civic leadership, they would have no chance in Cleveland. In 1999, Cleveland had an African American mayor. In addition, the president of the city council was an African American, as were one-half of the members of that city council. The president of the school board and the superintendent of schools were both African American. One of the two Congressional representatives from the Cleveland area was an African American. There were at least a dozen African American officeholders in the suburbs surrounding Cleveland. Nothing the KKK could say or do in Cleveland in 1999 would alter or even make a dent in that powerful political reality established by the power of the African American vote.
This level of African American political power was exactly what the KKK was originally formed to prevent. The passage of the 15th Amendment to the US Constitution in 1870 extended male suffrage to African Americans, most of whom were fresh from the bonds of slavery. Now, the hands that had once picked cotton were now picking African American Congressmen like Richard Cain of South Carolina, US Senators like Hiram Revels and Blanche K. Bruce of Mississippi, and state legislators like Henry McNeil Turner of Georgia.[ii] However, no sooner had African American political power emerged during Reconstruction than it was challenged and resisted and suppressed by white supremacists in what was called the Redemption; a term used to suggest redeeming the former Confederate states from any and all African American political power. Henry Louis Gates provides a comprehensive account of the lengths to which white Southerners sought to suppress the African American vote beginning in the aftermath of the 15th Amendment and continuing well into the 20th century. That resistance continued despite the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which theoretically removed the barriers to the vote that had been erected during the preceding 100 years to limit and/or entirely prevent African American voting rights.[iii]
This suppression of the African American vote was part of what Aldon Morris called “the tri-partite system of racial domination—economic, political and personal oppression” in his book, “The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement.”[iv] The first phase of that tri-partite system included efforts to keep African Americans living in an impoverished condition by limiting employment opportunities. The second phase involved denying them access to political power through various voter suppression tactics such as the poll tax, the literacy test, the Grandfather Clause, and more. The third phase was the threat of, and often the use of physical violence to intimidate African Americans and force them into compliance with the agenda of white supremacists. That third phase was where the KKK came into the picture, using their rallies and cross lightings and regular acts of terrorism such as lynching and burnings as tools of intimidation.
Despite all that, African Americans have continued to strive for the right to vote, believing that their eventual freedom was linked to their right to vote for candidates that would represent their hopes and aspirations. That is what came to fruition in Cleveland in 1999. More dramatically, that is what came to fruition with the election of Barack Obama in 2008 and again in 2012. Attempts at voter suppression have not ended. The 2013 US Supreme Court case of Holder v. Shelby County was a serious assault on the power of the Voting Rights Act, and has been used by several states to employ various tactics designed to suppress the African American vote.[v] The effects of that voter suppression may have been in evidence in the 2016 Presidential election when African American voter turnout dropped considerably from 2012.[vi] Of course, not having Barack Obama on the ballot may have also been a factor in lower than expected African American voter turnout!
It is sad to see that as recently as 2017 in Charlottesville, VA, the KKK and other white nationalists and white supremacists have been attempting to reclaim their place in American social and political discourse. It does not help that Donald Trump failed to condemn those efforts when he said, “There are very fine people on both sides.”[vii] Nevertheless, I am as certain twenty years later in 2019 as I was in 1999 that “the Klan is a symbol of a vanished era.” The voting power of African Americans will prevent any “Redemption” by white supremacists from ever being successful in this country.
Dr. Marvin A. McMickle is professor of African American Religious Studies at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, Rochester, N.Y., where he served as president from 2011-2019.
[i] Marvin McMickle, “Klan is a symbol of a vanished era”, Plain Dealer, August 20, 1999.
[ii] See essays on these men in An Encyclopedia of African American Christian Heritage by Marvin McMickle, Black Leaders of the Nineteenth Century edited by Leon Litwack and August Meier, and Southern Black Leaders of the Reconstruction Era edited by Howard N. Rabinowitz.
[iii] Henry Louis Gates, Stony The Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow, New York: Penguin Press, 2019.
[iv] Aldon Morris, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement, New York: Free Press, 1984, p. 3.
[v] Vann R. Newkirk II, “How Shelby County v. Holder Broke America.” Atlantic.com, July 10, 2018. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/07/how-shelby-county-broke-america/564707/
[vi] William H. Frey, “Census shows pervasive decline in 2016 Minority voter turnout,” Brookings.edu, May 18, 2017. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/the-avenue/2017/05/18/census-shows-pervasive-decline-in-2016-minority-voter-turnout/
[vii] Rosie Gray, “Trump Defends White-Nationalist Protesters: ‘Some Very Fine People on Both Sides.’” Atlantic.com, August 15, 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/08/trump-defends-white-nationalist-protesters-some-very-fine-people-on-both-sides/537012/