New Orleans has long been pivotal in the struggle for black voting rights. During the Civil War, free blacks there demanded suffrage; their efforts resulted in Lincoln’s first public call for voting rights for some blacks in the final speech of his life. Once these rights were won, New Orleans blacks took an active part in politics, leading to the establishment of the South’s only integrated public school system. But rights once gained aren’t necessarily secure; after Reconstruction, blacks in New Orleans lost the right to vote. As Thomas Wentworth Higginson wrote at the time of the Civil War, “revolutions may go backwards.”
This is what we are seeing now, as New Orleans prepares for municipal elections on April 22. These elections are set to take place even though fewer than half the city’s 460,000 residents have returned and the vast majority of those displaced outside Louisiana are African-Americans–the result of what Representative Barney Frank calls the Bush Administration’s policy of “ethnic cleansing by inaction.”
How did this happen? How did New Orleans become the most obvious symbol of the “backwards revolution” in voting rights that’s been going on for at least twenty-five years? The answer is a states’ rights mentality that pervades not just the Louisiana legislature but also the Bush Administration. As the Rev. Jesse Jackson wrote recently, the Administration “seems intent on suppressing the African-American vote in New Orleans and in Louisiana.”
Starting months ago, civil rights advocates raised concerns about trying to hold an election in New Orleans with so many black residents spread all over the country, most in temporary, often shifting housing and likely to have a hard time finding out who’s running, let alone getting and returning absentee ballots. Let evacuees cast their votes in major centers of the diaspora, the advocates urged, much as Mexicans and Iraqis living in the United States have participated in their home country elections by voting at satellite stations.
But Louisiana rejected that idea out of hand; instead, the state legislature approved a proposal that allowed absentee ballots and limited in-state satellite voting and got it approved by the Justice Department (which under the Voting Rights Act of 1965 must clear changes in voting procedures that could discriminate against black voters or reduce black electoral strength). Justice officials went so far as to claim that “minority members of the Louisiana House and Senate were unanimous” in supporting the plan, a claim roundly disputed by elected black leaders, including State Senator Cleo Fields.
Despite such overtly discriminatory actions, Democratic Party leaders have offered only listless support of voting rights efforts–Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean called the Justice Department decision “a disappointing development.” There have even been rumors that some Democrats in Washington welcome the dispersal of the African-American voters of New Orleans as a way of building up party strength elsewhere. Reverend Jackson, in recent remarks at the Nation office, said “Democrats are soft-shoeing” on the voting rights issue. Joining him in the New Orleans fight have been the NAACP, ACORN and the Congressional Black Caucus, most notably John Conyers.
The Supreme Court declared more than a century ago that the equal right to vote is fundamental because it is “preservative of all rights.” The New Orleans election will not only determine who will lead the city but also play a major role in deciding how the city’s schools will be reconstituted, who will get to live where and whether reconstruction contracts and jobs will be fairly distributed. Every citizen of New Orleans has the right to participate in those decisions. But thanks to a hostile Administration and an indifferent opposition, that will not happen.