A 1960s Lawsuit Against the KKK Can Help Protect Elections in 2020Breaking News
tags: civil rights, voting rights
It is no secret that COVID-19 has made election administrators’ task in 2020 exponentially more difficult. States like Wisconsin and Georgia, where elections took place after COVID took hold in the United States, have struggled to distribute absentee ballots and keep polling places open. The result is a dilemma that recalls some of the most sordid episodes in our nation’s history: Americans—particularly Black and brown citizens, who have both borne the brunt of the COVID epidemic and face disproportionate and discriminatory barriers to voting—were forced to choose between their personal safety and exercising their right to vote. But as a voting rights lawsuit our organization recently filed on behalf of a coalition of organizations and voters in Wisconsin demonstrates, lawyers and judges can find a good solution to the whole mess in Bogalusa, Louisiana.
1960s-era Bogalusa, to be precise.
Bogalusa may seem like an odd place to look for guidance here. Louisiana, after all, was not known at the time for having free and fair elections. And Bogalusa may have been the very worst place in the state on that front: The city had the highest rate of per capita membership in the Ku Klux Klan in the entire United States, and the local Klan was engaged in a widespread campaign of “terror and intimidation.” Klan members attacked civil rights activists and brandished guns at civil rights marches. They defamed and boycotted white moderates who supported desegregation. And they threatened any governmental officials—from the governor to the mayor—who dared to try to get in their way.
Being the target of violence and intimidation by Southern racists was nothing new for members of local civil rights organizations like the Bogalusa Voters League, and they continued marching to obtain their right to vote and organizing to protect themselves against Klan violence. (You can find more about their story here.) But while the Voters League was undeterred, the same cannot be said of city officials. The officials who were not already openly sympathetic to the Klan quickly succumbed to Klan intimidation and abandoned their responsibility to protect residents’ voting rights by, among other things, looking the other way when the Klan tried to intimidate voters and civil rights protesters.
The predictable result was an outbreak of Klan terrorist violence directed at voting rights marchers and advocates. In response, the Voters League and the federal Department of Justice filed lawsuits against the Klan and the city of Bogalusa for violating, among other things, federal civil rights laws. The lawsuits argued that not only was it illegal for the Klan to intimidate voters but that it was also illegal for the city to fail to take reasonable actions to protect those voters. The federal court agreed. It issued orders banning the Klan from continuing its campaign of terror and, importantly, requiring the city to act. It ordered the city to use all reasonable means to protect voting rights groups from violence and, among other things, to publish and commit to a plan for ensuring that the groups would be able to safely exercise their civil rights in Bogalusa.
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