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HomePoliticsFor years, lawmakers in the US have suppressed elected Black officials and...

For years, lawmakers in the US have suppressed elected Black officials and seized control from their constituents.


Mississippi legislators enacted a law that would do just that create a new legal system in reference to the state capital, Jackson, rather than the current district court system.

Set to come into force on July 1, 2023the move by a Republican-dominated legislature has been criticized by opponents for being a “separate and unequaljustice system that is not accountable to the majority black community it would like to rule.

The law was justified by supporters as an attempt to crime level of the cityinclusive one of the highest murder rates in the country. But the move marks the second time in as many months that state lawmakers have taken highly visible steps to effectively disenfranchise black voters: On April 6, the Tennessee House of Representatives two black members evicted representing mostly black districts.

Like a sociologist who studies race and ethnicity, I have closely followed these steps of the states. In US history, I see three major periods of legislative suffrage in which legislative bodies have voted to remove members. These events have been shown to be a form of “white recoilwork to keep Black office holders powerless and their voters powerless without representation.

Reconstruction and lawlessness in legislation

After the Civil War, the United States went through a brief period known as Reconstructionlasting from 1865 to 1877. It was a deliberate effort to reverse the negative effects and legacies of slavery by enacting economic, political, and social policies that directly benefited the formerly enslaved black people of the South.

Efforts include formal abolition of slavery throughout the countryto guarantee equal protection of the laws for everyone regardless of race, and allowing formerly enslaved people to vote. In addition, formerly Confederate country was set aside for newly freed black families, and former Confederate soldiers were barred from voting.

But after Tennessee politician Andrew Johnson, who had been Abraham Lincoln’s running mate in 1864, took office after Lincoln’s assassination, many of those provisions of Reconstruction were reversed. Former Confederate combatants were allowed to vote and confiscated Confederate property was returned to its antebellum owners.

In addition, Johnson and Congress made it easier for defeated Confederate states to do so rejoin the Unionallowing former Confederate leaders to regain their previous positions of power in local and state governments.

Georgia was originally re-admitted to the Union in July 1868. But just two months later, in September, the Democratic-controlled Georgia Assembly, with a total of 196 members, voted to expel all 33 of its black elected officials.

Immediately after making themselves an all-white legislature, the remaining members of the assembly carried out the infamous Black codes. These codes created a unique set of laws specific to the newly freed blacks, including limiting the type of work they could do.

Jointly served the legislative expulsion of the black officials and the imposition of the black codes effectively deprived of the right to vote Georgia’s black voters. Senator Henry McNeal Turner, one of those defiantly suspended early: “Am I a man? When I am like this, I demand the rights of a man.”

Under the Black Codes, which were restrictive laws in the post-Reconstruction South, a black person could be sold into what was effectively a new version of slavery if they failed to repay fines or debts.
Interim Archives/Getty Images

The civil rights era

Another major effort to disenfranchise black Americans came during their next major effort to achieve political, social, and economic equality: the Human rights organization of the fifties and sixties. Opponents targeted two prominent civil rights activists chosen to represent their communities: Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Julian Bond.

Bond was elected a Democrat to the Georgia House of Representatives in 1965, but on January 10, 1966, the Democratic-controlled House voted not to seat him, citing his criticism of American involvement in Vietnam and support for students protesting the war. A year later, the US Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Bond’s First Amendment Rights was violated and ordered him to sit down. But during that intervening year, his voters had no voice in their state legislatures. Bond eventually served in the Georgia legislature another two decadesbefore turning to teaching and activism.

Powell’s situation was different. He was the first African American elected to Congress from New York and every state in the Northeast. Beginning in 1945, he represented the district encompassing New York City’s predominantly black Harlem neighborhood. He became one of the leading Democrats in the house, but in the mid-1960s he found himself embroiled in personal and financial scandals.

After the 1966 election, the House set up a committee to investigate Powell’s actions refused to place it until the commission’s report was ready. The report found fault, but committee members were divided on proper discipline for Powell. In the end, the entire House voted to keep him out.

Power sued to reclaim his seat, saying the House had unconstitutionally excluded him. He also won the April 1967 special election created by the vacancy, but did not take a seat because of the lawsuit. Powell’s removal meant Harlem was the only congressional district in the country without a representative from 1967 to 1969.

In 1969, the US Supreme Court ruled that the House had acted unconstitutionally by refusing to seat Powell. By this time, Powell had also won and sat in the regularly scheduled election of 1968, albeit without the seniority and committee positions that would normally have been given to someone who had been a continuous member of the House.

Black Lives Matter movement

In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, a new social movement originated in the United States. With this new activism came another “white recoilin the form of legislative suffrage.

In May 2022, Tiara Young Hudson, a long-serving black public defender, won the Democratic primary for a judgeship in Jefferson County, Alabama. More than half of the province’s population is non-white. Since she was unopposed in the general election, she was expected to win and take office.

But two weeks after the primary, a state judicial commission, divided along racial lines, removed the position for which she was a candidate and created a new courtship in predominantly white Madison County.

Hudson right away sued to block the service, saying it violated the Alabama Constitution and that only the state legislature had the authority to reassign judges. In March 2023, the state Supreme Court dismissed Hudson’s complainteffectively stripping the black population of Jefferson County of a representative they had chosen to be their voice on the state’s roster of judges.

And on April 6, 2023, the Republican majority of the Tennessee House of Representatives voted to evict two black lawmakers — Justin Pearson and Justin Jones — for participating in a protest calling for gun legislation following another mass shooting.

Within days, both Pearson and Jones had been temporarily reinstated through processes to fill vacant seats, but still facing special elections to fully reclaim their seats. Their alleged violation was participating in a protest against the rules of the legislature – but their real violation, I believe, was being black, outspoken and pushing for change.

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