James L. Leloudis and Robert R. Korstad: Fragile Democracy 

[UNC Press; September 2020]

A march to the polls in Graham, North Carolina on Saturday ended in chaos after police deployed tear gas on a crowd that included children and the elderly. The painful images sparked comparisons to scenes of voter suppression in the 1960s. 

In some ways, not much has changed since that time. The simple act of casting a ballot is still fraught. Writing this off as merely a byproduct of the Trump administration is tempting, but the rot goes deep. Fragile Democracy: The Struggle Over Race and Voting Rights in North Carolina—a new book by James L. Leloudis, a professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and Robert Korstad, a professor emeritus at Duke University—takes a researched look at North Carolina’s fraught relationship with race and voting. By looking back, they create a framework for the future. 

 The book begins with Reconstruction, a brief era of reform following the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment that was halted with the disenfranchisement of Black citizens and “reestablishment of white rule” toward the end of the 19th century. Central to that backslide was the 1898 Wilmington Massacre, when white supremacists overthrew the coastal city’s elected multi-racial government. That event is well-known; the insidious ways in which white supremacists worked to block Black citizens from voting in the years that followed are less recognized. 

The 1899 Act to Regulate Elections instituted a number of new clauses, including a literacy test which included a grandfather clause that excused anyone who had voted before 1867 (or, anyone with a descendant who had voted before 1867). 

This weekend, a video of a Trump voter identifying herself as a “poll challenger” rather than a “poll observer” went viral. Th aggressive phrase was rightfully challenged, but it didn’t materialize this election cycle: The 1899 act permitted electors the right to “challenge the vote of any person” on polling day. In other words, voter intimidation was written into our state’s laws. And it worked: Before the coup, in 1896, 126,000 Black men were registered to vote in North Carolina. By 1902, that number shrunk to 6,100. 

In later chapters, the authors explore the rise and fall of Jim Crow and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, up through 2010, when Republicans won control of the General Assembly and lawmakers began to redistrict the state. In the past decade, legislation like HB589 has taken up where 1898 left off, with its push for a state-approved voter ID requirement, slashed early voting opportunities, and fewer voting sites. 

This, too, is racism at work: In 2016, a federal court ruled that the legislation was designed to “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision.”

If today’s voter suppression tactics have a familiar chill, that’s no coincidence. Trump may have exploited the fault line available to him, but the state has long been engineered against Black and Brown voters. Fragile Democracy is written by academics and can be a dense trek, but it is an indispensable manual for understanding how we got here.

“History has a clarifying power,” Leloudis and Korstad write. “It exposes the fragility of our democracy, it warns us against complacency; and, in stories of struggle and courage, it offers hope that we might yet cast off the shackles of white supremacy.” 

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