Seeds of Distrust: Black voters and the history of national backlash

Updated: Feb. 25, 2021 at 7:12 AM EST
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MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WMBF) - There’s no greater civic duty than exercising your right to vote. It’s an obligation that became even more clear amid the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing voters to find new ways to cast their ballots.

“There was a lot of pressure to do right,” Catherine Fleming Bruce with Black Voters of South Carolina said.

While many grappled with the process of how votes would be counted, some African Americans worried about their ability to vote after decades of suppression.

“We were hearing those kind of things,” Bruce said. “That I want to see you put it in that box because I want to make sure.”

Bruce also served as a 2020 poll worker. She credits grassroot efforts to reach Black voters across the country with a clear message of the times.

“There’s already been observation that African Americans, Black and Brown people are being disproportionally hit by the pandemic,” she said. “So it’s important for them to be engaged in the solutions at the local level, as well as the state level.”

Through struggle, those efforts prevailed.

According to a CNN exit poll, African Americans make up 27% of South Carolina’s population, and yet 26% of them voted in 2020. This discovery shattered the stigma on the Black vote.

“I think there are reasons why African Americans don’t vote that come from a historical and personal experience precedent,” Bruce said.

Some of those historical events are all too familiar in South Carolina, especially during the Reconstruction era from 1861 through 1876. That’s when the Palmetto State became the first legislature with a Black majority. The group would go on to enact changes needed to level the playing field for all South Carolinians.

“A lot of the focus was on education and making sure there were institutions that would support Black uplift,” Bruce said. “We had people in there who were fighters for Black rights.”

Through fear, white South Carolinians went to extremes to spread lies and negative images about the legislature. They even called the state capital “the monkey house.”

Fast forward to 1868, whites regained control and stripped Negroes of their right to vote by legally enacting systemic barriers like requiring a literacy test to vote.

“That very robust period was followed by pushback,” Bruce said. “And the same kind of campaign we’re seeing now on January sixth at the Capitol and the insurrection there.”

Bruce is referencing the deadly insurrection on the U.S. Capitol that led to dozens being arrested and charged.

“In a sense, reconstructing is replaying itself,” Bruce said. “We had to have learned something from what happened and the length of time we were powerless and vow that this never happens again in this era.”

It’s a vow Black Americans like Conway Mayor Barbara Blaine-Bellamy carries daily. It serves as a reminder of when she started her historic campaign for office.

“That racial divide did have a bit to do with my consideration to put myself out there,” the mayor said.

Blaine-Bellamy recalls not being unsure of her abilities, but of the community’s acceptance.

“It was time for Conway to accept that a person of color will have the qualification and would be able to not only handle the responsibilities of being the mayor, but do a good job with it as well,” the mayor said.

To her delight, the Conway community agreed. In 2016, the little girl who walked segregated streets in Conway was now becoming the first African American to raise their right hand to accept the oath of office.

“In my sixth year as mayor, sometimes I’m reading a document publicly and there’s a line at the bottom that says ‘by the power vested in me.’ I have trouble reading that line without tearing up because sometime it’s still too good to be true,” she said with tears in her eyes.

Though her candidacy shows how far African Americans have come, recent uprisings across the country still show how far we have to go.

“We still have a lot of work to do. I get to vote, I get to be mayor. I’m still Black,” the mayor said. “I feel we will continue to fight. Not with arms, not with fist, but to prove ourselves worthy.”

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