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Opinion

1870s Racism Echoes Through Trump and Colorado Cases | Opinion

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by Quentin Young, Colorado Newsline
August 3, 2023

In the years following the Civil War, President Ulysses S. Grant’s greatest task was to secure the Union victory he achieved as a general against a violent surge of resistance in former Confederate states.

The Ku Klux Klan, formed by rebel veterans in 1866 to maintain white supremacy in the South, undertook an unprecedented campaign of domestic terrorism that killed many hundreds of Black Americans. 

Largely in response to inaction on the part of Southern authorities, Congress passed three measures known as the Enforcement Acts, which sought to protect Black citizens and ensure their access to the polls. Grant championed the acts, particularly the third one, known as the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, which gave the federal government extraordinary powers to enforce equal protection for all citizens.

It’s a dismal legacy that this set of laws, enacted more than 150 years ago to counter outright racist violence and murder after a war that ended slavery, proves useful among prosecutors and plaintiffs even today. It’s one of the common threads, in fact, of the indictment unsealed this week against former President Donald Trump and a voter intimidation case in Colorado.

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The federal grand jury indictment against Trump, announced Tuesday by Special Counsel Jack Smith, contains four counts related to the former president’s lie that he won the 2020 election and actions he took preceding the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol. One of the counts alleges a violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 241 — which is derived from the Enforcement Acts of the 1800s. Trump conspired to “injure, oppress, threaten, and intimidate one or more persons in the free exercise and enjoyment of … the right to vote, and to have one’s vote counted,” the indictment says.

The Jan. 6 insurrection, fomented by a figure who emerged on the national political stage promoting the racist “birther” lie about former President Barack Obama, brimmed with racist overtones. Racist symbolism, notably the Confederate flag, was everywhere to be seen among the pro-Trump mob in Washington that day. White supremacy was essential to the whole “stop the steal” campaign.

A man carries the Confederate flag on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington, D.C. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

“While then-President Donald Trump encouraged demonstrators to retake the nation under the guise of halting certification of the 2020 election results, racism was in the roots of, and remains embedded in, this movement,” says Human Rights Watch. “It cannot be ignored that a substantial number of white Americans fear becoming a minority.”

An outgrowth of that movement was a voter canvassing effort in 2021 by the most prominent election-denier organization in Colorado, U.S. Election Integrity Plan, which is the subject of a lawsuit against the group’s top members. The stated purpose of the canvassing project was to develop evidence of irregularities in the 2020 election.

In all of these cases, the central theme is that, whether it’s Trump or USEIP, they are unhappy with the fact that particular groups of citizens get to vote and so are trying to stop them from being able to vote and to have their votes counted.

– Ron Fein, of Free Speech For People

“USEIP agents travel door to door, often targeting high-density housing, communities experiencing growth among racial minority voters, and communities in which a high percentage of voters supported Democratic candidates in the 2020 election,” according to the complaint, filed last year in federal court by the Colorado NAACP, the League of Women Voters of Colorado and Mi Familia Vota. “Sometimes armed … USEIP agents interrogate voters about their addresses, whether they participated in the 2020 election, and — if so — how they cast their vote.”

One of the laws the plaintiffs allege USEIP members violated is a civil incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan Act.

“In all of these cases, the central theme is that, whether it’s Trump or USEIP, they are unhappy with the fact that particular groups of citizens get to vote and so are trying to stop them from being able to vote and to have their votes counted,” said Ron Fein, an attorney with Massachusetts-based Free Speech For People, who represents the plaintiffs in the USEIP case. “And they formed a conspiracy to prevent these votes from being counted fairly or for allowing the voters to vote in the first place. And that’s where they crossed the line set forth by the Ku Klux Klan Acts.”

A distressing but essential quality of the MAGA movement is how it has reenergized the Lost Cause impulse to discriminate.

“Trump’s actions and those of his supporters brought forth central concerns of Reconstruction into our politics in a way that we hadn’t seen in a very long time,” Fein said.

A trial in the case is set for February.

One of Grant’s most ardent supporters was Frederick Douglass. At the time of debate over the Enforcement Acts, he sized up the stakes.

“If we stand by President Grant and his administration, it is from no spirit of hero worship or blind attachment to mere party, but because in this hour there is no middle ground,” Douglass wrote.

USEIP members continue to push lies about elections. Trump is the leading Republican candidate, by far, for the presidency in 2024. He and his cultish supporters in Colorado and throughout the country have demonstrated repeatedly they have no use for democracy and will employ any means, even violence, to eliminate fair elections if they don’t like the results.

The moment in certain ways echoes the Civil War era. Racist, anti-democratic sentiment is an immediate threat, and there is no middle ground. Americans are called upon to choose a side.

But there are other ways in which that former divisive time might be a guide. Grant crushed the Klan. And, in the end, democracy prevailed.

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Colorado Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: info@coloradonewsline.com. Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.