BOOKS: Georgia’s Quest for Fair Representation

BOOKS: Georgia’s Quest for Fair Representation

By Steve Suitts

Vol. 25, No. 1-4, 2003 pp. 15-16

Laughlin McDonald, A Voting Rights Odyssey: Black Enfranchisement in Georgia, Cambridge University Press, 2003.

For the last three decades, Laughlin McDonald has been democracy’s lawyer in Georgia. Following his mentor, Charles Morgan Jr., McDonald and his longtime colleague, Neil Bradley, have been involved in more cases attempting to expand voting rights in Georgia than any other lawyers. Now, the director of the Southern office of the American Civil Liberties Union has written the first history of voting rights in Georgia.

A Voting Rights Odyssey: Black Enfranchisement in Georgia will be more accessible and engaging to all readers than the off-putting, scholarly title suggests. McDonald has condensed into a slim volume his hard-won knowledge and understanding of the history of voting rights in Georgia since the Civil War. While court cases are the author’s primary markers, he includes the voices and perspectives of both black community leaders who struggled for political rights and white Georgians who considered black voting a heart-stopping attack upon the “Southern way of life.”

The book is heavily footnoted like a lawyer’s brief, but McDonald documents the story of resistance and change in Georgia with an open style. There are no lawyer’s wooden phrases here. This history is full of court cases woven together with instances of violence, intimidation, subterfuge, political chicanery, moral blindness, self-interest and collective acts of courage. It is a book that scholars will use, teachers of state history should assign, activists will appreciate, other attorneys will cite, and readers of non-fiction will find informative and knowing.

By the middle of the book, many younger readers may find it difficult to comprehend why Georgia’s white leaders spent so much of the state’s limited resources and intellectual capital over more than a hundred years trying to keep African Americans from exercising the simple democratic right to vote and to have that vote count in electing candidates to public office. McDonald leaves readers to explore on their own this lesson in the persistent nature of racism, but he does make clear how the methods and themes of resistance persisted over generations in Georgia.

Empowering hand-picked grand juries to select hand-picked school board members, creating one-man county governments, and selectively applying at-large voting schemes–all are techniques that McDonald traces from earlier Georgia history as obvious efforts to defeat black voting that continued into recent years. Yet, the most striking evidence of this long trail of resistance is the language that McDonald quotes from opponents of black voting. There isn’t much difference in what white Atlantans bemoaned when “nigger aldermen” were elected in the 1870s during Reconstruction and what Georgia state representative Joe Mack Wilson of Marietta, the chairman of the house reapportionment committee, said about “nigger districts” being created in the Atlanta area in the 1980s.

McDonald has a good eye for the details of Southern irony. He notes, for example, how in 1868 a black state senator–who happened to be named George Wallace–was expelled from the Georgia legislature on trumped-up

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allegations. He also highlights Herman Talmadge’s claims in 1955 that “God advocates segregation” as if the Good Lord was nothing more than a hired lawyer in someone else’s high court.

One interesting part of Voting Rights Odyssey is McDonald’s inclusion of segregationist activities by some of Georgia’s recent and current white leaders. It can be no accident that McDonald includes a couple of outrageous quotations from federal judge Robert Elliott when he was a young, ambitious politician in the 1940s. Similarly, the author includes segregationist remarks and strategies from Georgia governors Ellis Arnall and Carl Sanders, now generally revered as Southern moderates or liberals during the 1950s and 60s. McDonald also chronicles former U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s efforts as a young school board member in Sumter County to block the construction of a black elementary school because white parents worried it was too close to a white school. The author does not suggest in any way that these public figures should be judged solely by their early remarks and actions, but seemingly he also does not want history to judge their public careers without considering these incidents.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this book is what the author does not include in the last half, which covers recent history. Rarely-and only when the story seems to require it-does McDonald reveal his own involvement in voting rights cases. In truth, McDonald and his colleagues at the ACLU’s Southern office handled most of the cases that helped to move the Voting Rights Act from a distant federal law to a living reality in Georgia in the last thirty years. This book easily could have been written in the first person-as the personal story of one lawyer’s dedicated efforts to bring democracy to the county courthouses, city halls, school boards, and Georgia’s gold dome where the state legislature sits.

This third person history reflects the choice of an unassuming, thoughtful lawyer who possesses a courtly deference to others as the real heroes of good deeds. McDonald clearly prefers his readers to understand the themes of Georgia’s voting rights history far more than he wants them to admire his own central role in helping to shape it. As a careful author of the voting rights history of Georgia, Laughlin McDonald has written the accessible book of record. As democracy’s lawyer, he has helped to give that book-and Georgia-a much better ending.

A native of Alabama, Steve Suitts is the program coordinator of the Southern Education Foundation in Atlanta and a former executive director of the Southern Regional Council.