Frederick Douglass on Shelby County
TOURO LAW JOURNAL OF RACE
FREDERICK DOUGLASS ON SHELBY COUNTY
OLYMPIA DUHART 0
0 -Frederick Douglass , What the Black Man Wants
In his 1865 speech delivered in Boston at the annual meeting of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, the abolitionist Frederick Douglass offered a brief but biting answer to the question raised in his speech. The question is framed in the title of his address: “What the Black Man Wants.”2 The answer was clear and unmistakable: The right to vote. But the realization of Douglass' dream for black Americans has proven to be just as elusive today as it was almost 150 years ago, when Douglas first made his demand.
“Again, I want the elective franchise, for one, as a colored man, because ours is a
peculiar government, based upon a peculiar idea, and that idea is universal
It was a simple answer to a provocative question.
to recognize a point that Douglass consistently articulated during his work as
an abolitionist and activist. Through his essays and speeches, we can see
today that Douglass understood then what the Court ignores now.
Significantly, Douglass revealed that the majority in Shelby missed the
obvious: voting rights and universal suffrage are inextricably bound to the
realization of full citizenship for black Americans. Specifically, Frederick
Douglass’s writings demonstrate that Shelby misapprehends in dangerous
ways the dilution of the Voting Rights Act will impair black Americans.
Douglass made clear that protection of voting rights is paramount for
advancing representative government and eradicating the stigma of
inferiority for black Americans.
Shelby County v. Holder
Shelby County, Alabama is a predominantly white suburb of Birmingham,
Alabama.5 In 2010, Shelby County filed a lawsuit in federal court asking that
Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act be declared unconstitutional.6 Section 5 –
which was originaly enacted in 1965 – requires that certain states and
municipalities obtain federal preclearance for all voting changes before they
are implemented.7 Section 4 applied that requirement only to some states,
primarily those located in the South and Southwest.8
Originally enacted in 1965, Section 5 is a key provision of what has been
called “the most effective civil rights law enacted by Congress.”9 The Voting
Rights Act was one of three key pieces of legislation that emerged from the
civil rights movement.10 In its June 2013 decision, the Court did not disturb
Section 5.11 However, the Court did find Section 4 unconstitutional, which
5 Shelby Co. v. Holder, THE LAWYERS’ COMMITTEE FOR CIVIL RIGHT UNDER LAW,
7 42 U.S.C. § 1973c (a) (2006).
8 See 42 U.S.C. 1973 §4. Section 2 of the Act, which allows voters to pursue voting discrimination
claims through other provisions, is still in place. Shelby County, 133 S. Ct. at 2619. “Now it is up
to voters to challenge voting laws by filing lawsuits under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act,
which prohibits racial discrimination.” Kara Brandeisky & Mike Tigas, Everything That’s
Happened Since Supreme Court Ruled on Voting Rights Act, PROPUBLICA (Nov. 1, 2013, 12:24
9 Shelby Co. v. Holder, supra note 5.
10 See Chris Dutton, The United States Supreme Court Contributing to the Downfall of Civil
Rights Starting With the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (unpublished manuscript) (on file with
author). Along with the Civil Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act, the Voting Rights Act was
intended to foster equality and justice. Id.
11 “We issue no holding on Section 5 itself, only on the coverage formula.” Shelby Cnty., 133 S. Ct.
effectively rendered the preclearance provisions worthless unless and until
Congress drafts another coverage formula.12
The Court relies on the “change” in the country to justify invalidating the
coverage formula. At the end of this majority opinion, Justice Roberts says
“Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is
too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that
problem speaks to current conditions.”13 In his concurring opinion, Justice
Clarence Thomas also announces: “Today, our Nation has changed.”14 The
message is a not-so-subtle evocation of President Barack Obama’s 2008
campaign mantra–“Change.”15 (The obvious question is whether Roberts and
Thomas, consciously or subconsciously, believe that the election of an
AfricanAmerican president is enough “change” to declare the country post-racial and
no longer in need of curative remedies to guard against racial
But more directly, the Court relies too heavily on its understanding of
equal sovereignty to justify its dismissal of the historical record and current
practices.16 The court noted that the coverage formula “made sense” in
1966.17 The Court went on to say that almost “50 years later, things have
changed dramatically.”18 It mentions “rare” instances of blatant
discrimination and the presence of minority candidates19 as evidence that the
coverage formula is a no-longer-necessary, unconstitutional relic that can no
longer be justified. Furthermore, and perhaps more egregiously, the Court
ignored the proliferation of “second-generation barriers.”20 Chief Justice
12 Id. “The provisions of §5 apply only to those jurisdictions singled out by §4. We now consider
whether that coverage formula is constitutional in light of current conditions.” Id. at 2627. See
also Dutton, supra note 10.
13 Shelby Cnty., 133 S. Ct. at 2631 (emphasis added).
14 Id. (emphasis added).
15 See Barack Obama, The Blueprint for Change, at
16 Shelby County, 133 S. Ct. at 2622-24.
17 Id. at 2625.
19 Id. at 2621.
20 Id. at 2629. “Second generation barriers” are those subtle obstacles erected by states to
suppress voting rights. NAACP LEGAL DEFENSE AND EDUCATIONAL FUND, INC. & THE NAACP,
DEFENDING DEMOCRACY: CONFRONTING MODERN BARRIERS TO VOTING RIGHTS IN AMERICA 10,
available at http://naacp.3cdn.net/67065c25be9ae43367_mlbrsy48b.pdf. Beyond outright
discrimination, states have passed laws to “prevent African-American participation in voting,
enabling county councils and school boards to use at-large elections to submerge newly-registered
minority voters within white majorities, draw racial gerrymanders, close or secretly move polling
stations in minority neighborhoods, and employ countless other strategies to minimize or to
Roberts insisted that he did not ignore the record; nevertheless, in his opinion
he took deliberate steps to minimize, distance and dismiss its overwhelming
evidence of bias. He also blamed Congress for not updating the coverage
formula.21 While explicitly recognizing the existence of “electoral
arrangements that affect the weight of minority votes,”22 effectively voter
dilution measures, the majority still struck key provisions from the strongest
piece of federal legislation in place to protect full voting rights for minorities.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in sharp contrast, correctly relied on the
record produced by Congress in her dissenting opinion to demonstrate that
voting rights are still actively threatened by obstructionist measures. She
made a compelling case for why the Section 4 provisions are still critical to
protect the right to vote. In her 37-page dissent, Ginsberg echoed the
rationale first asserted by Frederick Douglass for the protection of voting
rights. Rather than allow the Voting Rights Act to be “a victim of its own
success,”23 Ginsburg defends the necessity of the Voting Rights Act and its
key provisions as essential tools in eradicating bias at the polls: “Just as
buildings in California have a greater need to be earthquake-proofed, places
where there is greater racial polarization in voting have a greater need for
prophylactic measures to prevent purposeful race discrimination.”24
Advancing Representative Government
The promise of a representative government that reflected and responded
to the new identity of the black American citizen was one that defined in
many ways the work of Frederick Douglass. Following the Civil War, one of
the issues that commanded much of Frederick Douglass’s attention was his
quest for black suffrage.25 As Douglass stated:
I have had but one idea for the last three years to present
to the American people, and the phraseology in which I
clothe it is the old abolition phraseology. I am for the
“immediate, unconditional, and universal”
enfranchisement of the black man, in every State in the
Union. [Loud applause.] Without this, his liberty is a
mockery; without this, you might as well almost retain
the old name of slavery for his condition; for in fact, if he
is not the slave of the individual master, he is the slave of
society, and holds his liberty as a privilege, not as a right.
He is at the mercy of the mob, and has no means of
Douglass’s essay, An Appeal to Congress for Impartial Suffrage, opens with
the thought that “[a] very limited statement of the argument for impartial
suffrage, and for including the negro in the body politic, would require more
space than can reasonably be asked here.”27 He cited “participating in the
production and operation of government”28 as a fundamental requirement of
impartial suffrage. He then moved to the nitty-gritty details that lay out the
work before Congress in 1867 when he wrote. He says: “It is to save the
people of the South from themselves, and the nation from detriment on their
account.”29 Douglass made a case for congressional action to supplant “the
evident sectional tendencies of the South by national dispositions and
Likewise, Justice Ginsburg defends the Voting Rights Act as but one tool
to assist Congress’s efforts to cure the South of its “sectional tendencies”. In
her dissent, she described the Voting Rights Acts as “one of the most
consequential, efficacious, and amply justified exercises of federal legislative
powers in our Nation’s history.”31 Justice Ginsburg then methodically laid
out the case for the continued applicability of the coverage formula and
preclearance provisions. She detailed the numerous obstacles that have been
erected as a breed of “second-generation” barriers to full voting rights for
Among those more subtle barriers to voting rights highlighted by Justice
Ginsburg in her Shelby dissent are:
26 DOUGLASS, supra note 1.
27 FREDERICK DOUGLASS, An Appeal to Congress for Impartial Suffrage, in NARRATIVE OF THE LIFE
AND OTHER WRITINGS, supra note 1, at 186.
29 Id. at 193.
30 Id. at 186.
31 Shelby Cnty., 133 S. Ct. at 2634 (Ginsburg, J., dissenting).
32 Id. at 2635. (Ginsburg, J., dissenting).
A proposed redirecting plan in in the city of Albany, Georgia following
the 2000 census that was designed to limit increased black voting
strength, to return it to previous levels.
The proposal of an at-large voting mechanism for a school board in
Charelston County, South Carolina in 2003 after African-Americans
won a majority of its seats for the first time.
A threat by Walker County, Texas in 2004 to prosecute two black
students after they announced their intention to run for office.33
As Justice Ginsburg noted: “The number of discriminatory changes blocked or
deterred by the preclearance requirement suggests that the state of voting
rights in the covered jurisdictions would have been significantly different
absent this remedy.”34
And even as he dismantled the greatest protection in place for full voting
rights, Justice Roberts conceded: “At the same time, voting discrimination
still exists; no one doubts that.”35
The ink had barely dried on the Shelby opinion when states began
crafting legislation intended to suppress the minority vote.36 “The Supreme
Court decision unleashed all manner of new efforts to suppress minority
voting — and a new batch of legal challenges.”37 New measures aimed at
suppressing the black vote38 that have emerged since Shelby include: limiting
early voting, stricter voter identification requirements; restrictions on voter
registration; and gerrymandering minority voters by dispersing them into
white-controlled districts.39 “In short, the practices grouped as ‘second
33 Id. at 2541 (Ginsburg, J., dissenting).
34 Id. at 2540 (Ginsburg, J., dissenting).
35 Id. at 2619.
36 See e.g., Lyle Denniston, New Texas Voting Disputes, SCOTUSBLOG (July 3, 2013 7:05 PM),
37 Richard L. Hasen, Voter Suppression’s New Pretext, N.Y TIMES (Nov. 15, 2013),
38 Though this essay focuses on the negative impact voter suppression measures will have on
black voters, voter suppression measures will clearly harm all minority voters. See, e.g., NAT’L
PUB. RADIO, Do New Voting Laws Suppress Fraud? Or Democrats?,
Based on my efforts to situate this discussion in the context of Frederick Douglass’s call for black
voting rights, I have elected to limit my discussion to the harms on black voters. The new
measures will also impact young voters and democratic voters. See Hasen, supra note 37.
39 Hasen, supra note 37.
generation’ are not unrelated to the concerns that first animated Congress to
enact the VRA.”40
Because Frederick Douglass recognized that only full voting rights could
ensure the success of black Americans, he rallied fiercely for both the
abolition of slavery and the extension of voting rights for black Americans.
His writings consistently demonstrate his belief in the necessity of an
absolute guarantee of representative government–free of both first and
Eradicating the Stigma of Inferiority
In addition to the tangible problems created by structural defects that
impair representative government, the suppression of voting rights also
works an intangible harm on the hearts and minds of those affected. Voter
suppression worsens the stigma of inferiority. Douglass was clear about the
psychological harms wrought by the denial of universal suffrage. A former
slave who spent his first 21 years in captivity41 before he escaped and
distinguished himself as a writer and activist,42 Douglass recognized the
cycle fueled by stigma.
According to Douglass, voting rights are critical where “universal suffrage
is the rule, where that is the fundamental idea of the Government.” Ruling
blacks out of the voting process is to “make us an exception, to brand us with
the stigma of inferiority, and to invite to our heads the missiles of those about
us; therefore, I want the franchise for the black man.”43 Douglass adamantly
refused to accept a brand of inferiority: “I utterly deny, that we are originally,
or naturally, or practically, or in any way or any important sense, inferior to
anybody else on this globe.”44
Douglass’s self-awareness was correct: Blacks and whites are indeed
created equal. Yet the psychological harm inflicted by oppression of the black
community in America is well-documented. Scholars have pointed, for
instance, to the systemic oppression of blacks as a means of explaining the
40 Ellen Katz, What Was Wrong with the Record?, 12 ELECTION L.J. 329, 331 (2013).
41 Frederick Douglass was likely born sometime in 1818 to a slave woman, Harriet Bailey, in
Talbot County, on the eastern shore of Maryland. Harriet Bailey’s fourth child was a boy she
named Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. CHESEBROUGH, supra note 25, at 3. “The father of
the infant was an unknown white man.” Id.
42 See generally CHESEBROUGH, supra note 25, at 4.
43 DOUGLASS, supra note 1.
44 Id. at 182.
persistent educational disparities between blacks and whites.45 Some have
specifically noted the psychological injury identified in Brown I46 and the
ensuing legacy of such injury contributes to inferiority complexes and
challenges that plague many black Americans.47
The flip side of the coin, of course, is the mythology of white
exceptionalism.This narrative has been a long-standing keystone in the
oppression of black Americans.48 White exceptionalism fuels the narrative of
white greatness in education, business, politics, sports and the arts.49 “In a
world where Whites hold most of the power – financial, legal, political, social–
and where the tenets of racism remain firmly entrenched in the
consciousness and unconsciousness of those Whites, being deemed White
counts for a lot.”50 Douglass recognized the reinforcement of white
exceptionalism and black inferiority as a tried and true tactic more than 100
years ago. “This charge of inferiority is an old dodge,” Douglass wrote in
1865. “It has been made available for oppression on many occasions.”51
In the voting booth, the mythology of white exceptionalism and the stigma
of inferiority are especially pernicious. Together, they can cement both
negative and inflated views of the self. They could also further entrench
racial divisions. Professor Anthony Farley points out: “Voting is a way that
this colorlined society binds itself together in a vast white skin.”52
Douglass articulated the ways in which measures designed to impair
voting rights could stigmatize black Americans. In An Appeal to Congress for
Impartial Suffrage, Douglass wrote:
45 See Camille Lamar Campbell, Getting at the Root Instead of the Branch: Extinguishing The
Stereotype of Black Intellectual Inferiority in Secondary Education, A Long-Ignored Transitional
Justice Project (unpublished manuscript) (on file with author). Professor Lamar argues that the
Court’s failure to fashion an appropriate remedy tailored to the Constitutional violation accounts
for the de facto segregation that continues in American public schools. Id.
46 Brown v. Bd. of Educ., 347 U.S. 483 (1954).
47 See Campbell, supra note 45. The psychological injury identified in Brown I was the
“stereotypes of black intellectual inferiority that supported a racially segregated educational
system.” Id. Despite the “acknowledgement of Jim Crow’s psychological damage by imbuing Black
students with a badge of inferiority” the Court failed to fashion a “remedy to address widely-held
societal attitudes of Black intellectual inferiority.” Id. Professor Lamar specifically identifies this
deficiency as a “crucial remedial failure.” Id.
48 See Thomas Ross, The Unbearable Whiteness of Being, in CROSSROADS, DIRECTIONS, AND A NEW
CRITICAL RACE THEORY at 251-257 (Francisco Valdes et al. eds, 2002).
49 See, e.g., Olympia Duhart, Multiracial Streetcar Named Desire Revival Stirs Controversy on the
Great White Way, HUFFINGTON POST (June 19, 2012),
50 Ross, supra note 48, at 251, 253.
51 DOUGLASS, supra note 1, at 182.
52 Anthony Farley, Lacan and Voting Rights, 13 YALE J.L. & HUMAN. 283, 285 (2001).
Exclude the negroes as a class from political rights–teach them
that the high and manly privilege of suffrage is to be enjoyed by
white citizens only–that they may bear the burdens of the
states, but that they are to have no part in its direction or
honors–and you at once deprive them of one of the main
incentives to manly [sic] character and patriotic devotion to the
interest of the government; in a word, you stamp them as a
degraded caste–you teach them to despise themselves, and all
others to despise them.53
In her dissent, Justice Ginsburg warns against the Court’s demolition of
the Voting Right Act: “Hubris is a fit word for today’s demolition of the
VRA.”54 She recognizes that gutting key provisions of the VRA undermines
one of its highest aims: “to secure to all in our polity equal citizenship
stature, a voice in our democracy undiluted by race.”55 The dilution of voting
rights–whether achieved by overt, first-generation barriers, or subtler,
second-generation barriers – contributes to the badge of inferiority that has
been branded on many black Americans. Rather than enable Congress to
properly exercise its duties to fulfill the promise of the Fifteenth
Amendment,56 Shelby County blocks Congress’ mission. It also derails the
path laid out by Douglass to help black Americans eradicate the stigma of
Douglass’s life was fueled by aspirations to meet the challenges and
responsibilities of citizenship in every arena. His writings reflect lofty
objectives – denunciations of slavery, eradication of discrimination and the
guarantee of unconditional voting rights. He called for political rights for
black Americans, and explained why, absent those rights, full participation
by black Americans in representative government is impossible. Active,
ongoing protection of full voting rights through the Voting Rights Act is an
essential step toward advancing representative government and eradicating
the stigma of inferiority for black Americans.
53 Frederick Douglass, An Appeal to Congress for Impartial Suffrage, in NARRATIVE OF THE LIFE
AND OTHER WRITINGS, supra note 1, at 180.
54 Shelby Cnty., 133 S. Ct. at 2648 (Ginsburg, J., dissenting).
55 Id. at 2651 (Ginsburg, J., dissenting).
56 See id. at 2636 (Ginsburg, J., dissenting).
The missiles Douglass saw directed at his head were no metaphors.
Gerrymandering, at-large voting, voter intimidation, stricter voter
identification and voting requirements are not actually poll taxes. But such
measures tax voters, and representative government itself. As Douglass
correctly predicted more than 100 years ago, the demand for impartial
suffrage is one of the battle lines drawn between the races. Frederick
Douglass’s call for unconditional voting rights highlights the failings of
Shelby and the urgency of the work still ahead. Said Douglass: “I fear that if
we fail to do it now…we may not see, for centuries to come, the same
disposition that exists at this moment. Hence, I say now is the time to press