Remarks of Carol A Sigmond
President at the Ida B Well-Barnett
Feb 1, 2017
What Would Ida Bell Wells Barnett Counsel in 2017?
As many of you know, I consider the Ida Bell Wells Barnett award to be among the most important annual events at NYCLA. Not only because we share this event with our friends and colleagues of the Metropolitan Black Bar, but because of who Ida Bell Wells Barnett was and what she represents in our history, both at NYCLA and nationally. Ida Bell Wells Barnett stands out in history as a woman of clarity: clarity in vision, in action and in words. But for Ida Bell Wells Barnett, I think most of you know, I question whether would have been an NAACP at all or what became the NAACP legal strategy to combat segregation would have been effective.
In a sense, we have been transported back to 1877 and the end of reconstruction. Ida Bell Wells Barnett was than about 14 years old. She was still in school, but soon to be orphaned and begin her first career as a school teacher. She would, depending on how you count her activities have at least 2 more careers, in the newspaper business as a columnist, publisher and investigative reporter, as well as community organizer, with interests in the temperance campaign, women’s suffrage, and as a civil rights protester on behalf of members of the African American community. She raised her two younger sisters and later her own 4 children.
I say we have been returned to 1876, because the election of 2016 has much in common with that of 1876. In 1876, Democrat Samuel J. Tilden of New York won the popular vote by more than 250,000 with a 3% popular vote margin over Republican Rutherford B. Hayes. A deal in the Electoral College gave the election to Hayes. The deal was to end the presence of federal troops in the 11 states of the old Confederacy and allow those states to restore as much of the pre Civil War circumstances as possible, including widespread disenfranchisement of the freed slaves in return for the 20 electoral votes that Hayes needed for election. That deal struck, the 11 southern states all voted for Hayes. As an aside, Samuel Tilden remains the only person to win an outright majority of the popular vote and not become president.
We know all too well the results in 2016, Hilary Clinton won the popular vote by approximately 2.8 million votes and lost the election to Donald Trump in the electoral college. Hilary Clinton received the largest number of votes and has the largest margin of victory in total votes, ever received by anyone who lost the election in the Electoral College.
In both elections, the Republican who lost the popular vote took office over the more popular Democrat. In both years, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin voted for the Republican. The story parallels respecting the prevailing candidates stop at that point. Hayes was a progressive Republican who actually supported equality for the freed slaves. But, he was a weak and ineffective president, owing to democratic control of the congress and the public perception of him has Rutherfraud. The Rutherfraud was a reference to the deal that allowed him to win in the Electoral College.
Hayes personal views, notwithstanding, he did withdraw federal troops from the south and allowed the pro slavery forces to assume control in South Carolina and Louisiana after his election. In part, his hand was forced, congressional Democrats would not fund the troops for the southern operations. In part, as noted, he had made a deal to do so, so as to be elected. A year or so later, Hayes was unable to secure funding for the federal marshals who enforced the federal ballot access laws.
Hayes’ withdrawal of the federal troops from the south with the final dismantling of the freedman bureaus, the loss of the federal marshals to enforce ballot access laws in the former confederacy and collapse 2 years earlier of the freedman’s saving bank, left the freed slaves in difficult straights. Many had money in the freedman’s bank and the bank’s collapse left them with no savings and debts. The loss of the federal troops and the dismantling of voting rights enforcement allowed for significant voter suppression in the old confederacy and in what would become Ida Bell Wells Barnett’s adopted border state home, Tennessee as well as the other border states. Voter suppression allowed the old Confederacy forces to retake control of state and local governments and opened the door to the lynch mobs and Jim Crow. Ida Bell Wells Barnett confronted one of the early efforts at out right voter suppression in Memphis about 8 years later when the city fathers wanted to depress the African American vote to avoid having the install sewers to control yellow fever which was hitting the poorer neighborhoods, including the African American neighborhoods. The suppression campaign worked.
Ida Bell Wells Barnett lived most of her life in the post reconstruction-Jim Crow era. She devoted more than 20 years of her life to documenting and publishing the truth about lynching as a device to suppress the African American vote, African American education, African American business development and African American prosperity. She used the tools available, weekly newspapers circulated among African American church goers and African American clubs, such as the National Association of Colored Woman and the Afro American Council, as well as the Black Elks and Black Moose lodges. She was a frequent speaker both here and abroad. Happily for all concerned, when the lynch mob in Memphis came looking for her on June 25, 1892, she was in Brooklyn, NY on a speaking tour that took her to Great Britain.
So, here we are, in 2017, with a president with an election vote minority, engaged in what appears to be a modern version of the dismantling of reconstruction, namely dismantling the progress of the last 65 years regarding voting rights and civil rights. We see this in an order for a so called investigation into “voter fraud” with exactly no evidence of any voter fraud. The target of this so called investigation must be urban voters, who rejected our current president in droves. Doubtless the focus of this so called investigation will be on urban voters of color. I suspect there will be more such efforts.
If we wish to carry on in Ida Bell Wells Barnett’s memory, in the fashion that she would have in this time and place, we as lawyers, must resist all efforts to limit ballot access. We know from the experience of the freed slaves in the south after the federal troops were withdrawn and funding for federal marshals to enforce voter access laws was cut, the darkness quickly followed. We must use the tools available, social media, the main stream media, demonstrations, and most of all, we must show up at every election, every primary and we must demand ballot access for all Americans, regardless of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation or whether naturalized or native born.
Revisiting the dark times of the post reconstruction era and Jim Crow is not pleasant but it is essential if we as lawyers, are to fulfill our role as the spear heads of civil and human rights in the United States of America. We cannot, as our counterparts of 140 years ago did, put our heads in the sand and ignore the injustices around us. Mindful of history, in memory of Ida Bell Wells Barnett, I urge our first concern as lawyers is protecting the right to vote for every American, in every town, village, county and city of this great land. Otherwise, we risk grave injury, short and long term, to our democracy and the very fabric of our society.