Senator Warnock is the first African-American elected to the US Senate from Georgia and only the second, from a Southern state since Reconstruction. Thus, his presence in the Senate is historic in itself. But, on 3/17/21, he used the occasion of his inaugural speech to argue eloquently for the passage of a pending voting rights bill, the “For the People Act.” The following quotations from his remarks set the tone for today’s and even yesterday’s voting rights debate.
“We are witnessing right now a massive and unabashed assault on voting rights unlike anything we have seen since the Jim Crow era. This is Jim Crow in new clothes.”
Politicians in my home state and all across America, in their craven lust for power, have launched a full-fledged assault on voting rights. They are focused on winning, at any cost, even the cost of the democracy itself. I submit that it is the job of each citizen to stand up for the voting rights of every citizen. And it is the job of this body to do all that it can to defend the viability of our democracy.”
To date multiple bills have been proposed in 28 state legislatures controlled by Republican.
Remembering History in a Chestertown Context:
We know the “For the People Act” is not the first civil rights legislation passed or pending in the US Congress.. Over 56 years ago, after a 54 day Republican filibuster, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was approved by the Senate and signed into law by President Johnson.
But, what about the Civil Rights Act of 1875? it was proposed by Senator Charles Sumner (R-Mass.) in 1870 . Considered a radical by the Democrats because of his strong anti-slavery positions, Sumner introduced his Bill in order to protect by law the now vulnerable Black Americans following the withdrawal of Federal troops from the South. However, It was voted down by the Democrats three times, the last on March 1, 1875.
As originally written, his bill would:
“Secure equal rights in railroads, steamboats, public conveyances,
hotels, licensed theaters, houses of public entertainment, common schools, and institutions of learning authorized by law, church institutions, and cemetery associations incorporated by national or State authority; also on juries in courts, national and State.”
All Chestertown residents know that the building located at 206 South Queen Street was named after Charles Sumner. Sumner Hall, aka GAR Post 228, was founded by African American veterans of the Civil War in the early 20th Century. Partnered with the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., the renovated structure is one of only two Black GAR Posts left in the United States.
However, more important than the building is the fact Sumner Hall has become widely acclaimed as a vibrant center featuring music, art, poetry, lectures and dance drawn from the rich history of Blacks in America.
If Charles Sumner can be claimed as a harbinger of civil rights law, he may also represent the first Senator viciously assaulted in 1856 in the Senate Chamber A pro-slavery member of the House, Andrew Butler (D-SC) was the assailant.
The Antebellum Period was an earlier phase in US history when deep divisions divided Americans. Those feelings led to Butler’s attack on Sumner and four years later to a 4 year Civil War that claimed 620,000 lives.
Tom Timberman is an Army vet, lawyer, former senior Foreign Service officer, adjunct professor at GWU, and economic development team leader or foreign government advisor in war zones. He is the author of four books, lectures locally, and at US and European universities. He and his wife are 24 year residents of Kent County.