As Super Tuesday and its crucial slate of primaries approaches, one of the most significant developing stories is the overwhelming support of African-American voters for Hillary Clinton's campaign. In Saturday's South Carolina Democratic primary, 80% of African-American voters (who comprised 60% of all Democratic voters in that primary) went for Clinton, a higher percentage than had voted for Barack Obama in the 2008 primary.
There have been plenty of harbingers of that African-American support for Clinton, including the prominent roles played by #BlackLivesMatter mothers like Lucia Fulton (Trayvon Martin's mother) and Geneva Reed-Veal (Sandra Bland's) in Clinton campaign events. Yet both Sanders supporters and Clinton critics have nonetheless expressed surprise and frustration at this voting bloc and its seeming ignorance of positions and actions from Clinton's past, with such outrage coalescing into the Twitter hashtag #WhichHillary.
Of course such debates are closely linked to contemporary issues, from Clinton's own career and record to broader conversations about race and 21st century politics. Yet they also echo the long and layered histories of African-American voting and political participation, and better remembering those histories complicates and challenges the anti-Clinton critiques.
In the debates over the 15th Amendment, the third and final of what came to be known as the Reconstruction Amendments and the one that would grant African-American men the vote, many otherwise progressive activists expressed reservations about that community's political readiness. For example, women's suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony publicly claimed, "I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman." While she was partly advancing her own focal cause, such comments also reflected widespread fears that many African-American men (just a few years removed from slavery) were not yet politically knowledgeable enough to vote.
Speaking before the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery society, Frederick Douglass forcefully engaged with and responded to those narratives. "It is said that we are ignorant; admit it," Douglass argued. "But if we know enough to be hung, we know enough to vote. If the Negro knows enough to pay taxes to support government, he knows enough to vote; taxation and representation should go together. If he knows enough to shoulder a musket and fight for the flag for the government, he knows enough to vote." Thanks to the efforts of Douglass and many allies, the Amendment passed Congress in February 1869 and was ratified in 1870.
Over the next few years, exercising their newly granted suffrage, African-American voters helped elect hundreds of African-American state legislators across the South, as well as the first African-American Congressmen and many other leaders. At the same time, those voters and successes inspired a backlash, one exemplified by white supremacist-produced images of unruly Southern legislatures overrun by primitive African-Americans -- images of unreadiness and ignorance that would become part of a widely shared historical narrative of Reconstruction and would be brought to national popular prominence by scenes like this one in The Birth of a Nation (1915).
No voice pushed back on those images more powerfully than W.E.B. Du Bois. He did so in revisionist scholarly works like his magisterial book Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay Toward a History of the Part which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880 (1935). But he also did so by repeatedly challenging widespread assumptions that African American voters were simply ignorant, easily manipulated pawns for political parties or leaders.
In two stunning open letters to Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Warren G. Harding, both published in the NAACP magazine The Crisis shortly after those presidents' March 1913 and 1921 inaugurations, Du Bois laid out with nuance and precision his opinion of what African-Americans would look for and demand of the new administrations. As he put it in the letter to Harding, "Of the more than hundred million human beings whose destiny rests so largely with you in the next four years, one in every ten is of Negro descent" -- a hugely significant American community whose perspectives, as voters as well as citizens, would continue to inform every election, debate, and issue.
The fight to guarantee African-American voting rights continued for more than half a century after Du Bois' letters, and indeed remains ongoing and vital more than 100 years later. Yet so too has the fight to challenge images of African-American voters as more ignorant or less politically engaged than other communities -- images that we've seen time and again in the 21st century, often coded (if not indeed overt) through narratives of "Obama voters." Since 70% of those South Carolina Democratic primary voters expressed a desire for the next president to continue Obama's policies, it would be all too easy for the same bigoted narratives to be linked to these Hillary voters.
We'll see what happens on Super Tuesday and beyond, and how and where voting blocs and political coalitions evolve throughout this latest election season. But no matter what, American history reveals just how much #BlackVotesMatter, reminding us that if we minimize or dismiss that community of American voters, we're echoing and extending some of the worst of our collective narratives and histories.