Nathaniel C. Ball

Nathaniel C. Ball is the media and programs coordinator at the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change at the University of Memphis.

Suppression in disguise: What we can learn from 1960s Fayette County, Tennessee

By Published: November 09, 2018 8:22 PM CT

“Our country has changed,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in Shelby County v. Holder, a landmark decision that overturned a key provision of the 1965 Civil Rights Act and ended the enforcement of federal oversight of voting practices in states that have historically disenfranchised minority voters.

The decision opened up the floodgates for new forms of voter suppression. Immediately, states all over the country enacted stricter voter ID laws, purged voter rosters, and closed polling stations in areas heavily populated by minorities.

This wave of disenfranchisement has continued into the 2018 midterm election. For example, in Georgia and North Dakota, minority voters were purged from the voter rolls due to some technicalities. These trivialities ranged from slightly mismatched signatures to the disenfranchisement of Native American populations without a home address.

The Hooks Institute’s exhibit “Uplift the Vote,” on display at the Ned McWherter Library until Nov. 12, offers an example of voter suppression based on outright racism toward African-Americans who registered to vote in Fayette County, Tennessee, in the 1960s.

Yet the exhibit also reminds us to keep a lookout for voter suppression in all of its forms in today’s world. As revealed by the actions of those who carried out voter suppression in Georgia and North Dakota over the past few months, today voter suppression often takes on new forms.

Beginning in 1959, African-Americans in Fayette County, Tennessee, who far outnumbered their white neighbors, began to register to vote in massive numbers. Beyond the Jim Crow policies that had historically hindered African-Americans from voting, activists were intimidated economically, threatened with violence or attacked for demanding the right to participate in our democracy. In response to the African-American community’s perseverance, white supremacists devised additional strategies to frustrate them.

These strategies took on two fronts. First, African-Americans who registered to vote were placed on a blacklist that was distributed to the whites in the county. Once on this list, they were barred from purchasing goods and services from whites, including gas, food and health care.

Second, African-American sharecroppers who tried to register to vote were evicted. After the abolition of slavery, sharecropping was an agricultural system that rose in its stead, in which a landowner allowed tenants to work their land in exchange for a share of the profits. Those sharecroppers who were evicted because they registered to vote found shelter on two farms owned by African-Americans in Fayette County.

Despites these obstacles, African-Americans persevered in their efforts to register and vote. By doing so, they brought about numerous civil rights successes during the 1960s, including integrated public facilities, better employment possibilities and greater educational opportunities for African-Americans.

The Fayette County story is just one example of voter suppression. However, the movement demonstrates that voting is an empowering civic duty with lasting implications for our communities.

While it is easy to say that “our country has changed,” the truth is that many people, especially minorities, are still hindered in their efforts to participate in this democracy.

As new tactics emerge from those who wish to limit the voting rights of others, we would be naive to assume that their true purpose will always be visible.

Voting is a powerful tool in democracy that must be fought for and defended through vigilance and diligence.


voter suppression disenfranchisement The Hooks Institute Ned McWherter Library

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