Winston-Salem: Ground Zero

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A nation’s eyes turn to Winston-Salem this week — or, at least, the eyes of the voting public, which comprises about half of all adults — as it becomes Ground Zero in the fight for voting rights in the South.

And while it’s wonderful for the national media to converge on the city that has become the jewel of the Triad to see what we do well around here, in the courtroom there will be a daily reminder of something we do not.

North Carolina sucks at fair elections, particularly when it comes to race, going all the way back to 1900 when the General Assembly enacted laws requiring literacy tests and poll taxes for black voters, while a grandfather clause allowed whites to skip the process. The US Supreme Court kicked that one back to the drawing board in 1915, but the literacy tests remained in place until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, when they were finally deemed illegal. That law punished states like ours by requiring that most new election laws needed to be run through the federal government. Forty of North Carolina’s 100 counties fell under this classification, including Guilford.

The 2013 SCOTUS decision that nullified key parts of that act cleared the way for the NC Voter Information Verification Act, signed by Gov. Pat McCrory just a few weeks later, almost like it was planned that way.

Now that the notion of the law protecting against election fraud has been debunked, we see it for what it is: a modern-day poll tax just like the laws passed back in 1900. The newer law is designed to restrict voter access to the polls, specifically the access of poor people, and even more specifically poor black people.

Our first batch of unconstitutional laws came two years after the 1898 riots in Wilmington, when a duly elected, mixed-race council was overthrown by white supremacists. This time our General Assembly waited three years after a black man was elected president to make sure it wouldn’t happen again, at least not with North Carolina’s help.

There’s enough shame in North Carolina’s past to overshadow the things we have set in place for the future. That’s why, in a city where human bladders are grown in science labs and a grassroots culture thrives, we’re re-enacting events from the last century.

And we’re hoping once again that history bends towards the light.

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