SILICON LOUNGE: Supreme Court Tramples Activists' Graves

"How many bubbles in a bar of soap?" the poll worker asked Cornelius Steele in 1956. Steele, a landowner in Neshoba County, Miss., had already paid his poll tax. But he didn't know the answer to the voting literacy-test question and left the courthouse defeated, just as he had in 1952, 1953 and 1954. In 1955, the circuit clerk had almost let him past the roadblocks: "Tell you what, Cornelius, if I let you register, will you tell them other niggers?" Steele said he would. He wasn't registered.

Cut to September 14,1964: 18 black Neshoba Countians tried to register to vote. The sidewalks were filled with jeering whites. Lines of police officers kept blacks away, ensuring the integrity of the white vote. The 18 applicants forged ahead; three passed the literacy test. Lillie Jones failed; she had forgotten her glasses and couldn't read the questions.

Before the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, the good-old-racist network of Southern Democrats had one goal: to preserve the white power structure by blocking blacks from voting and preventing race-mixing. They used every tool: local laws, state legislation, favorable decisions by judges and juries, state constitutional amendments, and popular votes by the people, or at least the ones that mattered. On the stump, Gov. Paul Johnson called the NAACP "niggers, apes, alligators, coons and possums."

The web was intricate: To preserve sovereignty, the state Legislature established the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission to spy on "subversives;" and officials looked the other way as the Ku Klux Klan terrorized the state. It helped fund the racist White Citizens Councils, a group of "respectable" businesspeople and local leaders. The KKK may have been the executioner, but the Citizen Councils provided the public relations and the intelligence, so to speak.

All these conspirators: Law enforcement, merchants, terrorists, voters, paid spies, and the legislative, executive and judiciary branches together fought for the "southern way of life" by any means necessary. Jim Chaney, Andy Goodman and Mickey Schwerner got in the way in 1964 and ended up under a dam.

Hopefully you know the story. The three young men gave their lives to register African Americans to vote, to help them pass the literacy tests, and to break up the white power structure. But the Sovereignty Commission and Citizens Councils spied on them; the former (and next) mayor helped plan their execution; the sheriff's department and police joined together to pull them over; Klansmen shot and buried them; the Citizens Council spread "hoax" rumors; the state wouldn't indict the murderers. Everyday people blamed the "boys" for "meddling" their way into their own deaths.

Good resulted, though: Sadly, yet thankfully, it took the murder of two white New Yorkers, alongside a black Mississippian, to get the country to pay attention. The Voting Rights Act passed, outlawing bubble-counting questions and other barriers. For the last 36 years, minorities have increasingly exercised their right to vote in the South; and Mississippi has more black elected officials than any other state, although none have been elected to statewide offices. Next year, Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner may finally get their day in court: Neshoba County this year reopened a murder investigation into the case.

But did they ultimately die in vain? I pray not, but recent events make me fear so. When the now-blatantly partisan U.S. Supreme Court blocked the count in Florida of some 60,000 votes that have been disregarded, I cried. The South, and the country, is still being held hostage by a white-power cartel that can only benefit by fewer votes, not more. It can only win, it seems to think, by disallowing what it would call legal votes if the situation were reversed.

Even though it might win a full vote count fair and square, this GOP is suddenly an enemy to states' rights, probably realizing that many state judiciaries no longer use "white power" as their defining principle. (Don't you love that the GOP tried to dump black Democratic Judge Nikki Clark, who ultimately ruled in their favor?)

Sure, today's good-old-boy network lets in adoring women and appoints black Cabinet tokens who don't sass; and they have expanded their agenda to include classism. But, make no mistake, they are trying to preserve a status quo in a world that is steadily diversifying them right out of power. This may well be the Privileged White Man's Last Stand as I keep repeating (and hoping).

But the electorate must pay attention. Voting discrimination didn't come in a neat package in 1964; likewise today, this bar of soap has many bubbles. The literacy tests of the 1950s have become the faulty voting machines of 2000, with Republicans getting all ooey-gooey over the superiority of machines. (Do a little Usenet search for the uncensored race versions of the dumb Florida jokes.)

In Hillsborough County, police set up roadblocks to harass black voters, an old trick in the South. Katherine Harris wiped thousands of mistaken black "felons" off the voting lists. The NAACP has presented the Justice Department with more than 400 acts against minority voters on Nov. 7. Most astoundingly, this time Republicans are arguing against "states' rights," which apparently are only needed to help segregate society and protect big business' right to contribute to global warming.

This idiocy didn't start with this election, though. Republicans, ironically and tragically, have taken back the South by appealing to white racists. Don't forget Dubya's Bob Jones University pandering and Trent Lott's refusal to vote to condemn the CofCC (www.cofcc.org) -- and his long-time connection to the racist group. This may not be a grand conspiracy mapped out by Lott and Jeb and Dick (or Lynn) Cheney, but it is a serious threat to one-person-one-vote democracy. Consider my home state in the 1960s or Hitler's Germany: In both, scattered pieces of a racist puzzle added up to a horrendous crime against humanity.

Such future crises can be prevented; we just need to recognize the bubbles for what they are -- and wash them right down the drain.

E-mail comments to donna@shutup101.com. Source for Mississippi voting stories: Witness in Philadelphia by Florence Mars, Louisiana State University Press, 1977.

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