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Opinion | Assault on Black votes in Wayne County reminiscent of Jim Crow

The following is an essay on the Wayne County Board of Canvassers’ initial refusal to certify election results.

My entire life, I’ve understood this nation’s painful and difficult, racist history of denying the vote to black people. First, because we were property and not humans. Then, because, despite a devastating war and a constitutional amendment, southern states invented new barriers to throw in our way and block us from the ballot.

And just one generation before me, my father, born in Mississippi, returned home from his service in the Korean War only to be told he could not vote, because he was black.

Stephen Henderson

But until Tuesday, I’ve never feared that my own vote may be discounted. I’ve never worried that when I pull the lever or put the paper ballot in the machine, that my vote might be disqualified for bogus reasons, or certainly not because I was Black. I have voted mostly in neighborhoods where I’ve lived nearly my whole life. I never took it for granted, given the history. But I never thought my own vote was in doubt.

But as the Wayne County Board of Canvassers met on Tuesday, and took an initial vote refusing to certify the ballots cast two weeks ago for president and the other offices, all of a sudden, I felt in my own gut, what Black Americans before me felt their whole lives. 

And when Monica Palmer, one of the Republican canvassers who did not want to certify the vote, said she would happily certify Wayne county ballots outside of Detroit but not those from the city, I felt the weight of all that history come crashing down on my soul, and in my heart.

“I don’t want to talk about reconciliation. I don’t want to think about our future together as a country. Not right now.”

Palmer might just as well have said we had failed to pay a poll tax or pass a literacy test, or properly guess the number of jelly beans in a jar full of them. 

Those were the barriers white racists put in front of my father to prevent him from voting. 

The weak and absurd, unsubstantiated accusations from modern-day white racists about “voter fraud” in Detroit are the same. They are identical, and they stab at our rights with the same intent as Jim Crow did before: To be sure that we don’t count. 

I need to be honest here. The anger I feel at the very notion of that effort makes it hard for me to see through to much other feeling or thinking about what white racist supporters of President Donald Trump have been saying and doing since he lost the election, fair and square, two weeks ago. 

I don’t want to talk about reconciliation. I don’t want to think about our future together as a country. Not right now. 

“If this republic falls because we won’t, well, so be it. This nation does not deserve to survive if it cannot meet the most basic measure of equality, and that starts with ensuring the franchise.  I am not flexible on that position. I do not know any African American who is.”

What I want to do is whatever is necessary to stop this vile and cowardly attack on Black people and our voting rights. That is the nation’s business — Black and white. This effort must be put down from inside the insane asylum that is fomenting it, as well as from the outside. White Republicans who have stood aside and allowed this president to do and say the unthinkable have got to stand apart now. Call out the lies and the terrorization of Black communities. Tell this president and his followers that the conscience of this nation cannot abide even the threat of the mass disenfranchisement they are seeking. 

We, as African Americans, will not go back to the barriers our fathers and mothers and great-grandparents smashed and tore down. We will not countenance a requirement that we, and we alone, fight to preserve the legitimate exercise of our voting rights. 

And if this republic falls because we won’t, well, so be it. This nation does not deserve to survive if it cannot meet the most basic measure of equality, and that starts with ensuring the franchise. I am not flexible on that position. I do not know any African American who is. 

“The threat and the narrative about wholly imagined and unsubstantiated “voter fraud” continues.”

So where does that leave us? 

For now? Maybe nowhere. And that’s OK. Until we can put down this threat, there isn’t much else to discuss, or resolve. 

It needs to end here, and African Americans need to be assured of that as soon as possible. 

The Wayne County Board of Canvassers reversed its initial vote to decertify Tuesday, following massive outcry at the board’s public meeting. 

That was the right thing to do. But it isn’t enough. 

But the threat and the narrative about wholly imagined and unsubstantiated “voter fraud” continues.


This essay originally appeared on WDET and is republished with permission.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Ron French. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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