Mitch and Big Jim
Senators James Eastland and Mitch McConnell (official photos [public domain])

Mitch and Big Jim

Berry Craig
Berry Craig

By BERRY CRAIG

In a letter to a constituent, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he "fervently" opposes HR 1, the For the People Act of 2021.

Old-time southern white supremacists like Sen. James Eastland (D-MS) would love McConnell's argument against the bill which would make it easier for people to vote.

It's the old "states' rights" smokescreen they used against federal civil rights legislation including the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which Congress passed to overturn southern Jim Crow state laws that disenfranchised African Americans for years.

The Kentucky voter who wrote the letter wanted McConnell to support HR 1, which the Democratic-majority House passed earlier this year.

Figuring that targeted voter suppression is the key to winning elections, Republican-majority state legislatures are pushing a flurry of laws, which make casting ballots especially difficult for “racial minorities, poor people, and young and old voters," according to the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice. "We have shown that voter fraud and illegal voting — often cited to justify regressive voting laws — aren’t a systematic and widespread occurrence; racial minorities are much more likely than whites to lack accepted voter ID; and that there is a growing threat of voter roll purges, which risk disenfranchising large numbers of eligible voters."

HR 1 would go a long way to stopping these neo-Jim Crow laws.

Nonetheless, the bill faces an almost certain McConnell-led filibuster in the 50-50 Senate. In his reply to the voter, Minority Leader McConnell claimed HR 1"would give Washington, D.C., unprecedented power over the way our nation conducts elections" and restrict “free speech." (McConnell equates campaign donations — including unlimited dark money — to free speech. HR 1 would also limit the ability of megadonors to sway elections.)

McConnell added, "Since our founding, states — not the Federal government — have been entrusted with protecting and administering our elections."

Eastland trotted out the same line against the Voting Rights Act. “The constitutional rights and privileges of the people and the constitutions and laws of the states are to be nullified, abridged, and supplanted, insofar as voter qualifications are concerned,” Eastland said in the Jackson, Miss., Clarion-Ledger.

Generations of white Southerners cried “states’ rights” in defense of slavery, secession, armed rebellion against the United States, and Jim Crow laws that segregated African Americans as well as denying them the vote.

While McConnell is "fervently" against HR 1, Eastland said he was against "every word and line in" the “vicious, punitive" Voting Rights Act, according to the Clarion-Ledger.

In his letter, McConnell defended state voting laws. Kentucky election laws, he said, were “appropriate around our unique experiences in our elections.”

Eastland also played the states-know-best-“unique experiences” card. He defended literacy tests then commonly used in southern states, including Mississippi, to keep Black people from voting. He said that under the Voting Rights Act, such state voting regulations would be replaced by “an arbitrary determination of the U.S. attorney general, and it is apparent that the most he will require will be that a person be 21 years of age and a citizen and resident of Mississippi.”

In other words. the fundamental democratic principle of one person, one vote didn’t fly with Big Jim. He said Blacks were inferior to whites and that the Soviet Union was behind the civil rights movement.

Anyway, McConnell insists that the GOP voter restriction bills aren’t racist. He told the Wall Street Journal that “there’s very little tangible evidence of this whole voter-suppression nonsense that the Democrats are promoting.”

While all of the laws make it harder to vote, none of them are “an out-right effort to disenfranchise all Black people or all poor people,” said the Rev. William J. Barber II, co-chair of The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. Rather, “they are, by design, ‘surgical’ because [the Republicans] … know they just need small percentages. Jim Crow’s son went to law school and learned to crunch the data. I call him James Crow, Esquire. He has the same intent, but he can make it look more respectable than the old literacy tests and poll taxes.”

Rev. Barber: “Jim Crow’s son went to law school and learned to crunch the data. I call him James Crow, Esquire. He has the same intent, but he can make it look more respectable than the old literacy tests and poll taxes.”

Click to tweet

Eastland said Mississippi’s literacy test was not designed to keep African Americans from voting, the Clarion-Ledger reported. The senator asserted that the Voting Rights Act insulted Black people, too, because there were "numerous members of our Negro population who, as responsible citizens, have qualified to vote and have voted over a long period of time." (In 1960, 42 percent of Mississippi's population was African American. In 1965, Black people comprised just 6.7 percent of registered voters, but 59.8 percent two years after the Voting Rights Act passed, according to Vox.com.)

White supremacist Democrats like Eastland wanted African Americans kept away from the polls because they almost always voted Republican. After all, the party, founded on anti-slavery principles, had led the Union to victory in the Civil War, ended slavery, made African Americans citizens, and extended the franchise to Black men.

Today, most of the minority vote is Democratic because the Democrats mainly are the party of federal civil rights activism, as typified by HR 1.

Anyway, in the 1960s, young McConnell interned under Kentucky Sen. John Sherman Cooper, a moderate Republican. Then liberal-leaning, McConnell admired Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, Alec MacGillis wrote in The Cynic: The Political Education of Mitch McConnell.

McConnell happened to be in Washington when President Lyndon Johnson, a Texas Democrat who championed the historic civil rights bills, was set to sign the Voting Rights Act. Cooper, who supported the legislation, took McConnell to the signing ceremony, according to MacGillis.

Even so, civil-rightist-turned-states’-rightist McConnell scores 13 percent, an “F,” on the current NAACP Civil Rights Federal Legislative Report Card. (60 is passing). He still lauds Cooper, a Somerset Republican who died in 1991. “He was my hero,” McConnell said of Cooper in a 2015 Somerset Commonwealth Journal story. “In all my years of public life, there’s been no one from whom I’ve learned more.”

Learned less is more like it.

A footnote: McConnell is a longtime foe of expanding the franchise. In 1993, he led the GOP fight against the “Motor Voter” bill, which Democrat Wendell Ford, then Kentucky’s senior senator, co-wrote.

The measure allowed people to register to vote when they got their driver’s licenses. McConnell flat said he opposed the bill because it “helped Democrats,” MacGillis wrote in The Cynic.

“[McConnell] went so far as to suggest that low voter turnout was preferable in general: it is a sign of the health of our democracy that people feel secure enough about the health of the country and about its leaders when they don’t have to obsess about politics all the time,’ ” according to MacGillis.

The author added parenthetically: (A decade later, he would take the lead in pushing for voter identification requirements in the big 2002 election reform bill, thereby opening a major new front in his party’s push to limit access to the polls.”)

In a 2015 Slate article, MacGillis cited McConnell apologist John David Dyche’s authorized 2008 McConnell biography—hagiography is more like it.

Dyche, according to MacGillis, wrote that McConnell mocked Ford’s “handwringing about low voter-turnout” and “freely admitted that in his mind, low voter participation was not necessarily a bad thing because it meant that elections would be decided by a more rarefied electorate, rather than by the less-informed (Democratic-leaning) hoi polloi.”

Concluded MacGillis in Slate: “It was a classic articulation of the small-R republican model of American government — representative government by the more serious and civic-minded members of society, shielded from the whims of the mob — as opposed to the small-D democratic vision of mass participation. The leader of an advocacy group that formed to oppose motor voter framed this argument very bluntly by deploring that the bill would allow ‘unresponsible citizens’ to vote: ‘The legislation is a travesty both on the ballot and the intent of our Founders – self-government by a patriotic citizenry; strong, responsible, willing, and committed enough to maintain control over state and federal governments. [The bill] would bring into the electoral system millions who are not.’”

In Big Jim Eastland's day, a "a patriotic citizenry" meant white supremacist Democrats. Republicans like McConnell believe patriotic citizens are Trump Republicans who pine for Eastland's time when white, straight Protestant men ruled the roost, when wives were adoring helpmeets to husbands, stayed home to rear the kids and steered clear of "men's work" like politics and business, when African Americans were invisible men and women, when gay folks were in the closet, and when Mexicans kept south of the border.

--30--

Commentary

Berry Craig

Berry Craig is a professor emeritus of history at West KY Community College, and an author of seven books and co-author of two more. (Read the rest on the Contributors page.)


Comments

Sign in or become a Forward Kentucky member to join the conversation.
Just enter your email below to get a log in link.

Top Articles

Got Tips?

Got a story we need to cover? Something being covered up? A rumor we should look into? Send it to Tips@ForwardKY.com. We can't promise it will become a story, but we can promise one thing: tips are confidential, and all sources are protected.

Site Stats

Clicky