Democracy in Chains

Slavery’s Legacy Shackled the Black Vote—And Cost Gore Thousands of Ballots

Since World War II, "Florida's role as a shaper of what may or may not be the Deep South's last stand against creative federalism has been strangely underrated and usually ignored," Robert Sherrill writes in Gothic Politics in the Deep South. "One reason perhaps being that most of the country does not think of Florida as Deep South, forgetting that those Tallahassee legislators are operating about 20 miles from the Georgia border and about the same distance from Alabama. This is cracker country, moonshine country, stiff with the old social myths and political myopia."

Throughout the mid 1900s, Florida political deal makers viewed race as a legitimate topic. "The embers are always there," one mover and shaker told Sherrill. "You can fan it into flame or leave it smolder." When the Congress of Industrial Organizations tried to register black voters in Florida, George Smathers, the rising young political star who would become a senator, called the drive "the most dangerous invasion of carpetbaggers" since the Civil War. Today, the state is home to several of the most powerful white supremacists in the country, including Stormfront, an Internet-based hate group headquartered in West Palm Beach.

Though legally dead for more than a century, the chattel system re-emerged in Florida as late as 1991, when six sugar companies failed to pay migrant Caribbean workers promised wages, a practice labor groups likened to virtual slavery.

Andrew Lichtenstein/Aurora

The aftereffects of slavery extend even to minorities newly arrived in this country.

The large community of Haitian Americans centered around Miami is a case in point. As Papa Doc Duvalier instituted a reign of terror against his opponents in Haiti during the 1960s, Haitians fled their homeland in a steady stream. Working in the States, they sent much of their money home and waited patiently for things to improve, so they could return. They eagerly awaited the return to power of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, but after the American troops landed and Aristide came back, things only got worse. In the last few years, Haitians here have abandoned their dream of going home and begun to seek U.S. citizenship. Across the Haitian communities, organizers patiently prepared people to become citizens, setting up community-based literacy programs and teaching people how to take the necessary tests and fill out government papers.

These immigrants came from a nation with its own legacy of black slavery. Seventy years before Lincoln emancipated American slaves, the slaves of Haiti overthrew their white masters in a violent revolution, then created the first independent black state since Europeans colonized Africa. Wary of a similar uprising by freemen in this country, Thomas Jefferson recommended they be sent to live in Haiti. By the time Haitians began immigrating to the States in great numbers, they brought with them a rich tradition of self-determination, balanced by the fear of tyranny.

It all came to a head with this election, when for the very first time, new Haitian American citizens, putting aside memories of election-day violence in their home countries, screwed up their nerve and went to the polls. What they encountered was a wall of resistance. "Several things happened," Marleine Bastien, a Haitian American organizer in Dade County, says. "They were told they couldn't vote because they didn't have a voter registration card. Some were threatened with deportation and intimidated in other ways. There were groups of people giving out information saying that voting Democratic is like voting for the devil and the Ku Klux Klan.

"Some ballots had Gore-Lieberman next to a punch line that really was for Bush-Cheney," Bastien continues. "People in line were prevented from voting because of polling deadlines, even if they were in line before 7 p.m., the cutoff time. Many of these people are in the service industry and use public transportation. Some precincts were closed as early as 4:30 in the afternoon. They were denied help even though there were Creole speakers available. Election officials ordered the Creole translators not to speak."

One union observer working out of West Palm Beach says most votes of 2000 Haitian union members were disallowed. "There was no Creole translation, but plenty of Spanish translators and a ridiculous ballot no one can understand," the observer says. "A lot of them just walked away. They didn't know what the fuck to do."

What happened to the Haitians is what has always happened to the Haitians: vicious intimidation and discrimination by public officials who consider them less than human. In this and countless other ways, they have become the new inheritors of slavery's legacy, adding another link in its chains.

Additional reporting: Rouven Gueissaz

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