On a recent trip to Montgomery, Alabama, to visit the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, we drove through a beautiful Southern town named Eufaula. While admiring some spectacular Southern architecture, I spotted a historical marker that said “Home to the Election Riot of 1874.”
In 1874, the Black majority in Barbour County was Republican, outnumbering Democratic voters by almost two to one. On Election Day, Nov. 3, the Alabama Democratic Party's White League ambushed Black voters at the polls, killing between 15 and 40 and wounding 70.
The White League drove away more than 1,000 unarmed Republican voters from the polling site and refused to count any already-cast Republican votes. These riots resulted in the “defeat” of all Republicans in office, as the Democrats declared their candidates the winners.
That day's actions were repeated throughout the South. Blacks stayed away from the polls for decades in Barbour and other Southern counties. So effective was that violence that only 10 Black Republican voters in Eufaula went to the polls for the 1876 presidential election. And, as we all know, the suppression of the Black vote continued well into the 1960s.
Eufaula is not the only example of Election Day violence in our country's history. In the 1855 Bloody Monday Election Day riots in Louisville, Kentucky, 22 were killed and more injured to block the Irish and German Catholics' right to vote. During the Colfax, Louisiana, Massacre of 1873, white vigilantes killed between 62 and 150 African American men to preserve the results of the 1872 gubernatorial election.
In November 2020, potential voter intimidation and threats by armed individuals was anticipated. Enhanced police presence was evident at some polling sites, and election task forces were beefed up to investigate any complaints of intimidation.
We didn't see riots or massacres (at that time), but preparations were made. Michigan banned firearms at the polls on Election Day. In Georgia, email threats of violence prompted law enforcement presence at 40 polling locations. While voters may not have been turned away from polls, there were reports of armed right-wing groups who had “troops ready to respond.”
The desire to regain control of local politics led those members of the Democratic Party's White League to riot in Alabama in 1874. The intent to block the immigrant vote and retain control motivated Louisville's Bloody Monday. It is that same desire to secure control, not the threat of voter fraud, behind the legislative changes transpiring across the country today.
Courts have found no evidence of systemic widespread voter fraud in last year's presidential election, yet a flood of bills has been proposed by states with the goal of combating voter fraud. The Brennan Center for Justice reports that as of the end of May, more than 20 laws have been enacted that will make it harder for Americans to vote.
“The right to vote is the crown jewel of American liberties, and we will not see its luster diminished” said President Ronald Reagan as he emphasized that “citizens must have complete confidence in the sanctity of their right to vote.” In 1874, as now, some states are attempting to undermine the sanctity of that right.
Voting is a fundamental right for each American. It has taken our country's lifetime for that right to be granted to women, people with disabilities, African Americans and immigrants. When we limit voting access, we stifle the voices of those Americans.
Our goal should be to make it easier for every eligible voter to cast a ballot. Only through expanding early voting, increasing the number of mail ballot drop boxes, and facilitating voter registration and polling access with same-day voter registration and no-excuse absentee voting will we ensure the sanctity that Reagan referenced.
In Montgomery, we saw museums honoring Rosa Parks and the first Southern White House for Jefferson Davis, but what I'll remember most is that plaque in Eufaula, a memorial to a violent episode of voter suppression.
We need to consider atonement rather than seek replication of activities that obstruct the right that is most vital to our democracy – the right to vote.
Patti Hays is CEO of AWS Foundation and a co-founder of AVOW, Advancing Voices of Women.