Georgia’s voting rights suppression latest in ‘Lost Cause’ effort to rewrite history

Posted 2 April 2021 at 12:05 pm


“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” is a quote often attributed to George Santayana, among others.

It has become a rallying cry of the right as conservatives across the country push back against the removal of Confederate statues throughout the South. They believe that these monuments are a true testament to “heritage, not hate” and provide a necessary historical perspective since “you can’t change history just because you don’t like it.”

With the recent passing of SB 202 in Georgia, conservatives are doing just that – changing history because they do not like it. Built upon the fallacy that the 2020 election was riddled with widespread voter fraud, the GOP in Georgia ensured that the next Donald Trump can find the necessary number of votes to maintain conservative control of the political field. This law is the truest demonstration of repeating the past.

History textbooks are littered with the “Lost Cause” narrative constructed in the wake of the Civil War. The heinous violence and exhaustive oppression carried out during Reconstruction is something that remains absent from grade-school curricula. Instead, we are repeatedly fed lies about carpetbaggers and opportunistic Northerners who traveled south to carry out further disruption of southern life after an unjust war. Little information is covered that describes widespread militant violence carried about by the Ku Klux Klan, the refusal of Southern governments to seat duly elected African American representatives, and ongoing efforts to subvert the 14th Amendment by imprisoning Blacks for trumped up crimes.

All of this brought to mind the popular narrative around Rufus Brown Bullock, an Albion native and one-time governor of Georgia. An opportunistic Northerner who travelled south before the Civil War, he accepted a commission as a Lieutenant Colonel with the Confederacy in addition to owning slaves for a brief period of time during the War. At the conclusion of hostilities, he pursued politics in an effort to further his financial interests with post-war railroad and telegraph infrastructure projects.

Locally, Bullock is lauded for his efforts to support racial equality in post-war Georgia. After all, when the “Original 33” Black members of the Georgia General Assembly were expelled in 1868, Bullock led the charge to reinstate federal military control in Georgia. Amidst rampant violence carried out by paramilitary organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, he pleaded for assistance from President Grant. Instead, the federal government was too preoccupied with the systematic destruction of Native Americans in the west to end lynching in the South.

What is often removed from this story is that Bullock was a longstanding proponent of convict leasing. Legislation outlawing vagrancy targeted previously enslaved Blacks who had no home or land of their own, placing them in prisons, and skirting the 14th Amendment. Those convicts were leased to private entities for pennies on the dollar and their slave labor used on railroad projects. Bullock understood that this reduced the cost incurred by the state to house prisoners and furthered financial interests in the development of railroads throughout Georgia. Despite his actions aimed at ensuring racial equality, under the surface his actions were no different from Southern politicians interested in continuing slavery at any cost.

Many right-leaning American voters are agreeable to the modern equivalent to literacy tests and poll taxes – i.e. voter ID laws. Pulling up an example of a 19th century literacy test shows that few would be able to answer such deliberately confusing questions. White voters had the added benefit of grandfather clauses to avoid the likelihood that they would be denied the right to participate in elections.

Political analysts have equated SB 202 to modern day Jim Crow legislation aimed at suppressing non-white voters. In truth, Georgia’s GOP is digging deep into a bag of old tricks. Our democracy is under threat once again and we must remain vigilant to ensure that the past does not, once again, repeat itself.

Matt Ballard

Statesville, NC (formerly Clarendon, NY)