Great Jamelle Bouie column on how the filibuster has been used to disenfranchise Black people for more than a century:
The unwanted attention came in the form of a voting rights bill. In his first message to Congress, issued in December 1889, President Benjamin Harrison, a Republican and a veteran of the Civil War, called on Congress to stop the disenfranchisement of Black voters in the South and to help “secure to all our people a free exercise of the right of suffrage.” Voter suppression had cost Harrison the popular vote in the 1888 election. Securing the voting rights of Black Americans would redound to his — and the Republican Party’s — benefit, although that was not his only concern.
“In many parts of our country where the colored population is large the people of that race are by various devices deprived of any effective exercise of their political rights and of many of their civil rights,” Harrison wrote. “The wrong does not expend itself upon those whose votes are suppressed. Every constituency in the Union is wronged.”
After Henry Cabot Lodge proposed legislation that would make certifying elections a federal rather than state power, the reaction should be familiar:
Mississippi completed its new constitution just as the Lodge bill moved from the House of Representatives — where it passed without a single Democratic vote — to the Senate. And in the debate over the bill, Mississippi’s plan to disenfranchise its Black population took center stage. “The white body of the South will forever keep the colored people as a lower stratum, without political power or social significance,” Senator Henry Blair of New Hampshire said, “until the time when the masses of the white people themselves have intelligence enough to know what real freedom is and to cast that ballot which ordains liberty for the millions of all races, and not the elevation and power for the few of one.”
Not every Republican, however, thought the bill was necessary. Some, explains Alexander Keyssar in “The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States,” were convinced that the party’s “procapitalist, pro-economic development, protariff views” would “attract a new white constituency in the South while shoring up Republican support elsewhere.” The party, they argued, did not need Black voters to thrive.
Division among Republicans allowed Democrats to take the initiative. They delayed debate on the bill until after the November midterm elections, where Democrats won control of the House. When, in December, Republicans moved to open debate, Democrats objected again. “We are acting in a great deal of haste to propose at this time repressive measures for the passage of a repressive and coercive force bill for the people,” said Senator John Reagan of Texas.
When, later that month, the Lodge bill finally reached the floor of the Senate, it was met by a Democratic filibuster. Democrats blasted the proposal as an unconstitutional power grab, a “cunning contrivance to place in the hands of a minority the control of the institutions of this great people, with a bayonet for every ballot to perpetuate their ruin.”
The Democrats have a historic responsibility to learn from the failures of the post-Reconstruction Republicans by restoring majority rule in the Senate and passing robust voting rights legislation.