Former Representative Artur Davis speaks at the Republican National Convention in Tampa on August 28, 2012. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
When Artur Davis took the stage at the True the Vote national summit in Houston earlier this year, the audience, almost all of whom were white tea partiers, went wild. Davis flattered the group, thanking them for coming out when they could’ve been at home watching the NFL draft. But the crowd was plenty excited to see their own star draftee: a Southern black politician who had come to confirm that their agenda is not racist.
“This is not a billy club,” he told the audience, waving his drivers license. “My mother, my father and grandfather were raised on the banks of the Alabama River, at the turn of 20th century. They can tell you what a billy club was and it’s not this. This is not a firehose. I’m from Birmingham, Ala. I used to count on a lot of senior citizens to work the polls for me. I used to organize a lot of my elections. They can tell you what a water hose is. This is not Jim Crow.”
It’s not Jim Crow. But the aggressive way that True the Vote has trained its tea party recruits to monitor voters is uncomfortably similar to tactics once employed by White Citizens Councils in Davis’ very own Birmingham. The indiscriminate voter purging they’ve facilitated falls disproportionately on blacks and Latinos. And the hoops many may have to jump through because they lack a car, or a birth certificate, or the multiple forms that need to be filled out do eerily echo literacy tests.
Four years ago, Davis spoke at the Democratic National Convention. In late August, the former Democratic congressman and gubernatorial candidate spoke at the Republican National Convention instead. His transformation, and the message he carries, have been eagerly promoted by those who are pushing the voter fraud narrative, all facts notwithstanding.
As I listened to Davis speak in Houston, I remembered a similar summit I attended in 2006, which was organized by “Patriot” and “Minutemen” groups. These tea party predecessors were transparent about not only their anti-immigrant stances, but their hostility towards Latinos in general. They used a lot of the same language as today’s tea party groups, like “taking back America” and “restoring America’s heritage.” And like True the Vote, they had a couple of black speakers at their summit who absolved the otherwise all-white movement of racism charges.
Most of those Patriot and Minutemen groups dissolved, just before the rise of Obama. But in 2010, tea party groups that look and sound just like them emerged, better organized and better funded. Many are just as far to the right as their predecessors, but on race specifically they use softer language. They proclaim that they just want to help improve government, and are offended by charges that they threaten black and Latino people. Their politics are not racist, they say, and if you don’t believe them, just ask Artur Davis.
A Changed Man
It’s often reported that Davis first broke camp with the Democratic Party when he voted against President Obama’s Affordable Healthcare Act. But the break came before that, when Davis voted against the climate billin 2009. At the time House Democrats had a safe majority and he was planning a run for governor, so he was given the benefit of the doubt. For a black person to win a statewide election in Alabama, he needs to buck the party.