African American Studies Program contextualizes Black political tradition in America

‘White supremacy, racial terror, and suppression of the Black Vote’

Annika Dahlberg

Staff Writer 

Professor Candice Harrison included the names of thousands of Black people who were lynched in her presentation on voter suppression. Screenshot SAN FRANCISCO FOGHORN

With both the 2020 presidential election and racial tensions ever-present in current American discourse, USF’s African American Studies program put on a two-part webinar about the history of Black voter engagement in the United States.

Part one of the series titled, “The Specter of the Noose, the Power of the Vote,” featured speaker professor Candice Harrison in a discussion on “White Supremacy, Racial Terror, and the Suppression of the Black Vote.” 

Harrison, a professor of history and the founding faculty director of the Black Achievement Success and Engagement initiative (BASE), focused her talk on the role of white supremacy and racial terror in the lives of Black voters in the U.S. post-Civil War.

She began with an anecdote about attending former President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009 and recalled feeling mixed emotions following the election of America’s first Black president. 

“As we walked through the crowd trying to find a place to absorb the magnitude of this moment, what I remember hearing over and over again was not just joy, not just hope, but fear. Fear that Barack Obama would not live to see the end of his first term, fear of a coming backlash. I understood that fear,” Harrison said. “I understood that fear as though it were somehow buried deep in my bones, right, deep in the DNA of a Black person; that constant fear of succeeding and then the backlash that often comes.”

The fear Harrison described, she argued, is linked to the historic uproar of violence perpetrated by white people against Black voters following the Civil War and its subsequent, transformative legislation. “You can’t understand the resurgence of white supremacist organizations, white malitias, white people arming themselves — threatening at the request of the president of the United States to become poll watchers — you can’t understand any of that if you don’t understand this particular historic moment,” Harrison said.

The Civil War was followed by the “Radical Reconstruction” period, which Harrison argued is usually overlooked in history books. In combination with the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments granted new political status and influence to Black people. The U.S. also saw an influx of Black people running for and being elected to public offices, a change that Harrison argued the vast majority of non-Black Americans were not in favor of.

As a result, state governments attempted to disenfranchise Black voters by using tactics including, but not limited to, literacy tests, education requirements, and grandfather clauses. These efforts coincided with an increase in racial terror and white supremacist organizations, which aimed to discourage Black voters through intimidation. 

Harrison did not hold back when emphasizing the severity and commonality of these acts of violence. 

“When you add the individual murders, the lynchings, the racial terror-based killings of Black people; when you add the numbers together of individual men, women, and children whose bodies were riddled with bullets, who were strung by various parts of their body from trees, who occasionally were set on fire, had their genitals cut off, when you add those numbers; I’m talking to you about more than 4,000 Black people who lost their lives to this surge of racial violence and white supremacy,” she said. “That comes as a backlash to the 14th and 15th Amendments.”

Following the inclusion of slides containing the names of thousands of men and women who lost their lives to white supremacists, Harrison concluded her presentation to Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” Accompanying the song was a slideshow of disturbing imagery that portrayed the ways in which lynchings were both publicized and celebrated in what Harrison described as “an effort to instill fear and intimidation into the marrow of Black people’s bones.”

Harrison left her listeners by painting a picture of the perseverance of the Black community.

“As horrible, as horrific, as painful as these narratives are, what I want to leave you with is not just a story of decimation over Black life,” she said. “The specter of the noose is real, and so too is the power of the vote. And so too, the power of love. The most extraordinary thing I think about African Americans — when you look at this incredibly dark, and painful, and powerful history — is their ability to continue to love.”

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