The Republican convention in Tampa, Fla., touches on a date that has marked the depths and the heights of the African-American experience in this country.
On Aug. 28, 1955, Emmett Louis Till, a 14-year-old African American visiting his relatives, was brutally murdered in Mississippi for whistling at a white woman. His funeral — with an open casket that displayed the barbarity of the attack on him — attracted tens of thousands in Chicago and helped spark the growth of the civil rights movement.
On Aug. 28, 1963, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. helped lead the March on Washington, where he captivated a nation with the moral plea for the “dream.” That peaceful and dignified gathering helped to enlist millions across the country on the side of civil rights.
Two years later, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. This not only protected African Americans, but provided for multilingual voting and protected the right of students to vote on campus.
As they gather, Republicans have to decide whether their meeting will mark a new low or a redeeming moment for their party and the country.
Across the country, Republican state and local officials have been moving systematically to restrict the right to vote by limiting early voting; requiring official ID; limiting hours of voting and voting booths — laws that have a disproportionate effect on the poor, on African Americans and other minorities, on the young and the very old.
Republicans claim this is about fighting fraud but offer no evidence of the problem. One expert noted that you have a better chance of being struck by lightning than discovering polling-booth voter fraud.
In Pennsylvania, Mike Turzai, the GOP House majority leader, exposed the purpose of the new ID requirement: “Voter ID, which is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done.”
In Ohio, Doug Preisse, a Republican county chairman, hailed the decision to abolish weekend voting because “we shouldn’t contort the voting process to accommodate the urban — read African American — voter turnout machine.”
Instead of increasing the vote, Republicans seem intent on constricting it. Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner argues this is on purpose: “Jim Crow has been resurrected. This is by design. It’s not by accident.”
Mitt Romney should condemn these efforts to suppress the vote and call for their repeal. Earlier, Romney attacked an Obama lawsuit to protect early voting in Ohio.
The campaign statement claimed, in what the New York Times editorialist called “an extraordinary lie” that Obama wanted to suppress veterans’ voting. Romney must decide which side he is on: with the historic tide that has extended the right to vote or with those who want to roll back the clock to an old era of voter suppression.
This is not an abstract question. Tom Edsall, an astute columnist in the New York Times, has suggested that the Romney campaign is using two dishonest ads — on welfare and on Medicare — to turn the election into a “resource competition pitting middle class white voters against the minority poor.”
And it is notable that, as the convention opens, there seems to be no room for African Americans such as Michael Steele, the former head of the party, or Colin Powell, a universally acclaimed leader.
This is likely to be a close election. Romney cannot want a victory built on voter suppression tricks. In a time of Gilded Age inequality, as representative of a party that seems intent on writing off the votes of America’s growing minorities, Romney should stand with King and the dream, not with the nightmare of a revived politics of division.