The Struggle over Race and Voting Rights in North Carolina

Relative to the recent voting rights suppression and rulings that have taken place in Georgia, the following is an excerpt from the introduction to Fragile Democracy: The Struggle over Race and Voting Rights in North Carolina (published September 2020) by James L. Leloudis and Robert R. Korstad

America is at war with itself over the right to vote, or, more precisely, over the question of who gets to exercise that right and under what circumstances. Conservatives speak in ominous tones of “America the vulnerable,” warning that voter fraud has become so widespread that it threatens public trust in elected government. They insist that lawmakers act at once to reverse the damage by policing voter registration more vigorously and implementing new security measures such as photo ID requirements for access to the ballot box. Progressives counter that electoral fraud is exceedingly rare and that when voting irregularities do occur, they usually involve mistakes made by election officials rather than individual voters’ wrongdoing. From this perspective, efforts to change the ways we govern elections are, at best, “a solution in search of a problem.” At worst, they constitute a thinly veiled campaign to shrink the electorate and restrict some citizens’ right to cast a free and fair ballot.

Over the last decade, North Carolina has been a battleground for this debate. In 2010, riding a tide of voter discontent, Republicans gained control of both houses of North Carolina’s General Assembly. The completion of the decennial census in the same year gave them the opportunity to redraw legislative districts in ways that produced a Republican supermajority in the next election. Then, in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court, ruling in the landmark Shelby County v. Holder case, struck down section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. That section required federal approval of changes to election law in jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination. It was critical to protecting the voting rights of minority citizens; in its absence, states had an opening to reintroduce discriminatory policies like those that the Voting Rights Act had been meant to abolish. Within a month of the Shelby decision, Republican lawmakers in North Carolina took advantage of that opportunity. They passed House Bill (HB) 589, the nation’s most comprehensive revision of election law. The legislation required that voters provide photo ID at the polls, shortened the period for early voting, and ended same-day voter registration and out-of-precinct voting—all of which had a disproportionate impact on minority, low-income, and elderly electors.

Opposition to these changes was vocal and well organized. It found voice through what came to be known as the Moral Monday movement, named for the weekly gatherings of protestors at the legislative building in Raleigh. Reverend William J. Barber II, a charismatic Pentecostal minister from Goldsboro and president of the North Carolina Conference of the NAACP, spearheaded the movement. For nearly a decade, he had led the North Carolina People’s Assembly, an ecumenical and multiracial coalition of organizations that pressured lawmakers—Democrats as well as Republicans—to act on a variety of social welfare issues, from affordable housing and a living wage to criminal justice reform and improvements in health care and education. The Moral Monday movement brought tens of thousands of new participants to this campaign. They marched in Raleigh and in cities across the state to express their opposition to HB 589 and the Republican legislature’s policy agenda, which included budget cuts for public education, stricter limits on unemployment benefits, elimination of the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit for low-wage workers, refusal of federal funds for Medicaid expansion, and reversal of death penalty reform.

While protestors gathered in the streets and filled the halls of the legislature, attorneys representing the state conference of the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union, the League of Women Voters, and the U.S. Department of Justice challenged HB 589 in court. They argued that if left to stand, the law would “cause the denial, dilution, and abridgement of African-Americans’ fundamental right to vote”—an effect that would, in turn, discount the voices of other citizens who allied themselves with black voters on issues of public policy. Progressives maintained that democracy itself was at stake in the battle over HB 589.

As historians and as participants in these events, we share another observer’s sense “that the politics of today is continuous with the past that made it, marked by struggles that have never really ended, only ebbed, shifted, and returned.” To understand the issues at stake in today’s battle over the ballot box, we must look back to 1865 and the end of the Civil War. The Union had been preserved and the Confederacy was in ashes, but the sacrifice of nearly three-quarters of a million lives had not decided the republic’s future. Would there be a “new birth of freedom,” as Republican president Abraham Lincoln had imagined in his Gettysburg Address, or would the nation be reconstituted as a “white man’s government,” the outcome championed by his successor, Democrat Andrew Johnson? Between 1865 and 1870, Lincoln’s party answered that question with three constitutional amendments that historian Eric Foner has described as America’s “Second Founding.”

The Thirteenth Amendment (1865) abolished slavery and guaranteed the liberty of four million black men, women, and children who had been enslaved in the South. The Fourteenth (1868) granted them citizenship by birthright and established the principle of “equal protection of the laws.” And the Fifteenth (1870) forbade the states from denying or abridging male citizens’ right to vote “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

These constitutional guarantees tied the fate of American democracy to the citizenship rights of a newly emancipated black minority and their descendants. For 150 years, the exercise of those rights and the connection between racial justice and democratic governance have been defining issues in American politics. This has been particularly true of the right to vote.

In North Carolina and the nation, battles over the franchise have played out through cycles of emancipatory politics and conservative retrenchment. In a pattern repeated multiple times, blacks and their allies have formed political movements to end racial discrimination and claim their rights as equal citizens. They have done so not only to advance their own interests but also to promote participatory democracy more generally and to make government responsive to the needs of all its people. Invariably, conservative white lawmakers have countered such efforts by erecting barriers around the ballot box. They have been remarkably creative in that work. When one restriction was struck down in the courts or through protest and political mobilization, they quickly invented another. Sometimes they justified their actions in overtly racial terms and implemented reforms through violent means. At other times they spoke euphemistically of fraud and corruption. Always, they presented strict regulation of the right to vote as a means of ensuring “good order” and “good government.”

James L. Leloudis is professor of history, Peter T. Grauer Associate Dean for Honors Carolina, and director of the James M. Johnston Center for Undergraduate Excellence at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is also co-chair of the UNC Commission on History, Race, and a Way Forward.

Robert R. Korstad is professor emeritus of public policy and history at Duke University’s Terry Sanford School of Public Policy.