I don’t need to explain why HB 148 won’t remove the “stain on North Carolina”

Large Confederate flag flying on private property in Lincoln County, N.C. Photo by Wilhelm Kühner (2017).

“I don’t think I need to explain why we want to repeal it. It’s a stain on North Carolina, and I just think it’s something that needs to come out of the constitution.” — Republican Rep. Michael Speciale of New Bern (News & Observer)

The North Carolina House voted unanimously last night to pass House Bill 148 (HB 148), a bipartisan bill to start the process of repealing Article VI, Section 4 of the state’s constitution — the literacy requirement for voting (News & Observer). Well, isn’t that nice? Never mind that this antiquated provision violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and is therefore unenforceable. Never mind that there are other unenforceable provisions in our state’s constitution that should also be removed, such as Article VI, section 8 which disqualifies “any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God” from holding public office, or Article XI, Section 11 which limits executions to “murder, arson, burglary, and rape.”

Going mobile in Catawba County, N.C. Photo by Wilhelm Kühner (2016).

Never mind that it’s only been a few weeks since one of the primary sponsors of HB 148 called Abraham Lincoln “the same sort [of] tyrant” as Adolf Hitler in response to criticism of another bill he had introduced to nullify the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage — and allow the state to enforce Article XIV, Section 6 of the N.C. Constitution. Never mind that it’s only been a few weeks since the latest ruling by a federal court that the N.C. legislature’s attempts at election rigging are unconstitutional. It’s now been almost nine months since an evenly divided (along partisan lines) U.S. Supreme Court denied a stay of the decision by an unanimous panel of the 4th Circuit that found our state’s new voting law was enacted “with almost surgical precision” to limit the influence of African American voters.

But Neil Gorsuch is now on the bench, and additional voting rights cases are still pending in the courts. So now is obviously the right time to remove an unenforceable 117 year-old literacy requirement from our state constitution while continuing to waste taxpayer funds (not El Chapo’s) to defend these more modern efforts to disenfranchise voters based on race (and political party) — and pass new laws targeting undocumented immigrants and their children and driving them further into the shadows.

April 26, 2017: N.C. Senate passes SB 145.

House Bill 148 has now been referred to the N.C. Senate. If it passes there and is signed by our Governor, the question of whether to remove the literacy requirement will be referred to the people for a decision by referendum in 2018. But regardless of the outcome, it won’t remove the “stain on North Carolina.” The damage our current legislature has done, and is still doing, to our state can’t be erased by symbolic gestures or public relations gimmicks.

Six flags flying in Lincoln County, N.C. Photo by Wilhelm Kühner (2016).

After a white supremacist murdered nine black worshipers attending Bible study at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston in 2015, I was moved by the emotional speeches in the South Carolina Senate by Paul Thurmond, the son of Strom, and Jenny Horne in support of removing the Confederate flag from the S.C Statehouse grounds. But it didn’t take long for the “Conquered Banner” to rise again over some of my neighbor’s lawns and automobiles, as well as in my Facebook feed. And just last year, the local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans kicked off the 127th ‘Soldiers Reunion’ in Newton, N.C. with a neo-Confederate ‘History Saturday’ event “focusing on the role of minorities in the Confederate army and addressing…misconceptions about the Confederacy” — with lot’s of Confederate flags on display. So I wonder how these good folks will vote in a general election referendum on HB 148 — we may find out in November 2018.

The literacy requirement for voting in N.C. was passed by the legislature in 1899 and ratified by eligible voters in a referendum in 1900. Writing in the Roanoke Beacon (Plymouth, N.C.) on November 17, 1899 the “brilliant [Democratic] congressman of the Fifth District” who would later become the 52nd Governor of N.C. assured the electorate that the requirement was not unconstitutional and would “stimulate education.” It’s passage would mean that “peace and safety will prevail in the east and the west.” The conditions in our state at the time were, according to Representative Kitchin, “in the opinion of our wisest men without hostility to the inferior race rendered necessary important changes in our qualifications for voters.”

“These conditions arose from a mass of voters who after thirty years experience were too ignorant to understand the issues, too irresponsible to consider them and too prejudiced to appreciate them.” — William Walton Kitchin

Daily Concord Standard (Concord, N.C.), September 1, 1899.

The state “can and does deny suffrage to women” (and others) he argued. And the 14th Amendment “does not and was not intended to affect or confer suffrage” he wrote confidently. “If it did confer suffrage, then women, children, and idiots could vote…” Moreover, the 15th Amendment “does not destroy the right of a state to prescribe the qualifications for its voters.” The literacy requirement was not unconstitutional just because it disenfranchised more blacks that whites, the future Governor proclaimed, since the same logic would invalidate the poll tax in Mississippi.

Just a few months earlier the Daily Concord Standard (Concord, N.C.) noted that it had been calling for the repeal of the 15th Amendment for years, but the Wilson Advance (Wilson, N.C.) editorialized a few days after Kitchin’s piece in the Roanoke Beacon that the purpose of the newly proposed suffrage amendment “is not to debar the negro simply because he is a negro, but because he is unfit to exercise a sensible franchise, because he is a creature who is easily led by demagogues who play upon his race antagonism.”

April 27, 2017: N.C. House expected to pass HB 330.

The bill contained “no reference to race or color” Kitchin noted. Still, aside from its critics, he claimed that “everyone else concedes, that in the essential requisites of the best and safest suffrage one race is, and necessarily so, from its history, environment, nature and condition inferior to another, and that under any reasonable rule intended to separate the fit from the unfit voter, a larger proportion of the inferior race necessarily will be eliminated than of the superior race.” After all, the Halifax County native explained, the “ordinary ignorant negro is not prepared for the duties of suffrage.”

“The amendment will be maligned and misrepresented by every one whose future depends upon the votes of ignorant negroes, but this child of the Democracy with her face set firmly towards white supremacy, her heart full of faith in honest, fearless, white manhood…will succeed...” — William Walton Kitchin

As noted in the Encyclopedia of North Carolina, “the greatest concern of Republicans and Populists was the potential disfranchisement of poor whites.” In June of 1900 the Chatham Record assured them that a recently added grandfather clause would allow illiterate whites to qualify if he or a lineal ancestor had been a registered voter before 1867.

“These changes will make the amendment much more popular, and ought to meet the objections heretofore made by any and everybody who really desires white supremacy and good government in North Carolina…No white man can now have any excuse whatever to vote against the amendment, who sincerely thinks that ignorant negroes ought not to help govern this State…”

- The Chatham Record (Pittsboro, N.C.), June 21, 1900

Going mobile in Conover, N.C. Photo by Wilhelm Kühner (2016).

The amendment passed easily thanks in part to this grandfather clause, along with registration abuses by Democratic officials and terrorism by armed gangs of white men. While HB 148 will probably pass easily as well — without any such abuses — it will do nothing to remove the stains inflicted on our state by the current legislature or by my misguided neighbors who unfurled the Conquered Banner in the wake of its removal from the S.C. Statehouse grounds. And frankly, I’m not really sure what will remove these self-inflicted stains on our state. But a renewed commitment to expanding equality and upholding voting rights and marriage equality would be a great way to start. And, of course, it would also help for my neighbors to “Furl that banner…[and] Touch it not — unfold it never.” That’s one symbolic gesture that I wholeheartedly support!

If you enjoyed this post, please click the heart to recommend it. Wilhelm Kühner is the pen name of William Keener, an eighth generation North Carolinian and the author of Who knows why the geese go barefoot?

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Wilhelm Kühner

Wilhelm Kühner

Pruning the “tangled thicket” of Kühner (Keener) Genealogie in Amerika and reflecting on its relevance to current events.