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The Black Vote: An Interview with Professor Gloria J. Browne-Marshall

(Professor, Constitutional Law, John Jay College)

The following Our Time Press interview with Professor Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, recorded earlier this month, launches a recurring series on the state of our times as we enter the third decade of this century. It is inspired in part by My Sankofa Year, one of two new upcoming books by Prof. Browne-Marshall, and presented under the Our Time Press 2020 theme, “Sankofa Year: What We Must Do to Stay Alive.”
David Mark Greaves: What do you see as happening with the Black vote going into 2020?
Prof. Gloria J. Browne-Marshall: Well, I think we need to put everything into historical context to truly understand how powerful the Black vote is in any election, statewide and national. This year is the 150th anniversary of the 15th amendment, which gave Black men the right to vote. At that time, no women had the right to vote. Slavery had just ended in 1865 with the 13th amendment abolishing slavery except as punishment for a crime. Then equal protections and due process and all those other things were given with the 14th amendment in 1868. But Congress tried to protect those rights because they knew there would be a backlash. So, it was understood even by white politicians in the 1860’s that once Black men received the right to vote there would be a backlash against them. What we’re experiencing now is not something new, it’s been experienced by Black voters since we gained the right to vote outright.
OTP: Now, other players are coming in to attack the Black vote with this whole cybersecurity thing, playing with the consciousness of people. According to the Muller report as you know, they concentrated a lot of their attack on Black voters. How do we combat that?
GBM: See, this is the thing: How do you protect yourself from not knowing why you’re being attacked, or exactly how? That’s one of the situations we’re in. We don’t know why. Too many African Americans don’t understand the power of their economics or the power of their vote.
We’ve got to look at that, in particular, because once we finally embrace our power instead of acting powerless — being an object of other peoples scorn, and attacks, then not only can we protect ourselves but maybe we can attack back. I don’t believe in just analyzing what everyone is doing to us without discussing plans and strategy around that attack. So, the reason even the Russians are attacking the Black vote is to undermine it in order for the conservatives to stay on top. They understand how important the Black vote is.
Nationally, the Black vote has changed the outcome of almost every election in which we have been a part. You go back to the 1870’s and the 1880’s, there were Black US Congressmen, Black Senators, Blacks in State governments. There were different types of Lieutenant Governors of states, Black men in the House and the Assemblies, in Louisiana, Mississippi and all these places. By 1896, that was the reason Plessy vs. Fergusson was required: for conservatives to stay in power. There’s always been this backlash.
In the 1890’s, the Mississippi Convention instituted the literacy test and poll tax. Particularly for Black people. The Grandfather Clause was created particularly to undermine that vote. So, the Russians aren’t doing anything the Americans haven’t been doing since we gained the right to vote in the 1800’s. For the same reasons, to make sure particular conservatives stay get in power and stay in power.
OTP: The voting percentages are so low except for Black women who are very active. But, in general, it seems a lot of Black folks don’t vote or don’t see the power of the vote. How do we bring that information (of their power), and the forces working against it, to them?
GBM: Well, community media is one magnificent way. But whenever we have a conversation about Black voting, we must always link voter suppression with voter power. If not, then we’re only talking about something in a very lopsided way and it discourages any vote. After a while, they just know they’re under attack, but they don’t know the reason for it. So, we all have a responsibility. We are now in the know regarding the power of the Black vote.
The first major attack against Black voters took place in the 1870s into the 1880’s when the Black vote got certain people like Ulysses S. Grant and others in office. It was seen back then that “these people have power.” This year, we’re not only in the 150th anniversary of the 15th Amendment; we’re in the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment which gave women the right to vote in 1920. So now what do we have? Black women, with the right to vote and already organized. That’s the reason Black women now have the highest voting percentage than any other group.
Currently, the percentage of Black women voters is higher than the percentage of white women and higher than the percentage of white men. And Black women have been organized since the 1800’s going into the 1900’s with the Black suffragette movement. All of this is in my book, “The Voting Rights War.” I traced the NAACP and the ongoing struggle for justice because the NAACP was the first major organization, or the longest standing organization, to fight for African American voting rights. But when we had Black women receiving the right to vote in 1920 immediately there were attacks on Black women because it was understood Black women would make the Black vote even stronger.
Plessy vs. Ferguson 1896, had such a disastrous effect on the Black vote because it was open season on Black voters. The poll tax people talk about. “Oh, it’s just a few dollars, why didn’t people pay the tax?” The Poll tax, the P-O-L-L poll tax had to be paid in order to go to the poll! It had to be paid before a person could register. However, no one talks about the fact that that the poll tax was paid at the sheriff’s office!
So, when an African American paid the poll tax it immediately told the white community (the pollster) wanted to exercise power. So, they knew exactly who to attack and who to stop them from organizing other people from voting. So, what the Russians probably have done is read American history: they probably read more than Donald Trump. So, they know that one of the power points in any election is the Black electorate.
Going back to educating the Black person who has the potential to vote so that person will register, that’s another thing that anti-voters — people who participate in voter suppression — have done. These anti-voters who want to suppress the Black vote close places where people get voter ID’s, or the photo ID they need to vote. They close those places down. They make them very scarce. They put those voting places in locations without a bus line. That’s what has happened in Texas. Voter ID laws started off in Indiana, Mike Pence’s state. So, there’s been this whole strategy around undermining our vote. We not only need to recognize this strategy as based on our power, we must fight back with an even more strategic type of defense and offense.
(Part Two of this multi-part interview will be featured in next week’s edition of Our Time Press.)
Dr. Gloria J. Browne Marshall-Marshall is a Professor of Constitutional Law at John Jay College of Criminal Justice (CUNY). She teaches classes in Constitutional Law, Race and the Law, Evidence, and Gender and Justice. She also taught in the Africana Studies Program at Vassar College prior to John Jay. As a Civil Rights attorney, she has litigated cases for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama, Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Inc. She addresses audiences nationally and internationally on issues of law and justice.
A prolific writer, Prof. Browne-Marshall works include The Voting Rights War: The NAACP and the Ongoing Struggle for Justice, Race, Law and American Society: 1607 to Present, her work-in-progress, My Sankofa Year which inspired this series. Her forthcoming book is She Took Justice to be published this year.
She resumes her anchor duties for “Law of the Land with Gloria J. Browne-Marshall” on WBAI, January 28, after a three-month hiatus.
David Mark Greaves, CEO, DBG Media, is the award-winning “View from Here” columnist for his Brooklyn-based Our Time Press weekly, he co-founded in 1996 with his wife Bernice Elizabeth Green, a press information specialist. A former filmmaker, Mr. Greaves filmed and edited the Greaves productions’ documentary NATIONTIME GARY The First Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana (1972). He authored a children’s book and recently stepped down from his chair of the Magnolia Tree Earth Center of Bedford-Stuyvesant. He is a graduate of Syracuse University and received a Masters in Fine Arts from Columbia University.

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