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Counties with higher lynching rates have low voter turnout today, SC researcher finds

Decades after lynching was used to intimidate and terrorize blacks in the South, the deadly tactic continues to have a chilling effect on whether African Americans decide to cast ballots in elections today.

Research by Clemson University economic historian Jhacova Williams shows black Southerners who live in counties where more lynchings occurred in the past are less likely to register to vote today.

They are also less likely to indicate they voted in recent presidential elections compared with their white counterparts.

The reason is rooted in distant memories.  

"It's not due to education levels or low earnings or incarceration rates or voter apathy because of Republican Party dominance in these Southern states," Williams said, citing factors commonly used to explain lower voter participation rates among African Americans in the South.

"This is about trust," she said.

The title of her research is "Historical Lynchings and the Contemporary Voting Behavior of Blacks."

Historians agree lynchings were violent tools of racial intimidation designed to exert political and societal dominance over blacks living and working in the American South.

According to a 2015 report from the Equal Justice Initiative, between the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and the start of the civil rights movement in 1950, there were some 4,084 lynchings of black people in America — 800 more than had been previously reported.

An estimated 185 of those lynchings occurred in South Carolina. 

According to Williams' research, which took four years to complete, the data found that for every additional lynching reported per 10,000 people in the black voting-age population in 1900, the voter registration rate of blacks today decreases by 1 percent.

In Georgia, the Southern state with the second-highest number of African American lynching victims and behind only Mississippi, the link was even more pronounced.

For example, in Dade County, Ga., where the highest lynching rate in the state was reported, its black voter registration rate in the 2008 presidential election was 31.42 percent.

Data from South Carolina, however, proved to be a bit of a pitfall. Williams' research shows counties in South Carolina generally have lower lynching rates and higher voter registration rates, the inverse of her overall findings.

Greenwood County, which has the highest lynching rate in South Carolina with 6.87 blacks lynched per 10,000 people in the black population in 1900, had a black voter registration rate in the 2008 presidential election of 72.4 percent.

During that election, South Carolina saw its black voter turnout surpass 70 percent, which is above the national average of 65 percent, according to Pew Research Center numbers. 

To examine the connection between historical acts of racial violence and modern-day voting behavior among blacks in the South, Williams examined county-level voter participation data in the six Southern states where individuals are asked to identify their race when they register to vote.

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Those states are Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina and South Carolina.

Jennifer Taylor, a senior attorney for the Equal Justice Initiative, said these findings can help spur a national dialogue about how this history of racial violence continues to impact communities of color today.

"It encourages our nation to look at itself instead of only identifying individuals as a problem," Taylor said.

Four years ago, the EJI opened the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala., which honors the country's known lynching victims by state and county. A number of those victims, Taylor said, were targeted for their political activism.

Some were killed just for trying to vote, for organizing others or for running as a candidate in an election themselves.

Frazier Baker, the first black postmaster of Lake City, was lynched while defending his federal post in 1898. The South Carolinian is honored at the memorial site.

"Almost always after that kind of an attack occurred, there was no action from law enforcement to arrest anyone or to prosecute anyone," Taylor said. "It sends a message to the entire community that you're vulnerable to these kinds of attacks and you're unprotected."

She added, "The purpose of a vote is supposed to exercise your involvement in a larger community and to act as a part of it. But if these other actions are illustrating that you aren't a part of it, it's certainly much easier to understand why people might not have as much of an internalized idea of voter engagement."

Williams said she envisions her research being used by activists, political organizers and civic groups to inform how they can work in these communities to address the deep-rooted cultural attitudes surrounding voting.

She also said she hopes the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates who keep flocking to South Carolina to court African American voters will take note. 

As a black voter herself, Williams became interested in researching low voter participation rates among African Americans after wondering why people in her own community were not voting.

"I guarantee if you talk to blacks today and ask them if lynching impacts whether they are registered to vote, they will say no. But if you talk to them about trust and the government, and trust in the system, you will start to see how it connects," Williams said.

"If your great-grandfather saw a lynching and said he doesn’t trust the system, he’s going to teach you the same thing. It’s then reinforced in other ways, like when we see police officers on social media saying racist things."

That Barack Obama was elected president in 2008 and re-elected in 2012 as the country's first African American president does not absolve the country of addressing how African Americans still face obstacles in the political process, Taylor said, pointing to history.

"There were African American people elected to Congress within a decade of Emancipation, but that also wasn’t evidence of equality," she said.

Instead, Taylor said these moments of perceived gains in racial diversity often spark or intensify racial animus.

Reach Caitlin Byrd at 843-937-5590 and follow her on Twitter @MaryCaitlinByrd.

Political Reporter

Caitlin Byrd is a political reporter at The Post and Courier and author of the Palmetto Politics newsletter. Before moving to Charleston in 2016, her byline appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times. To date, Byrd has won 17 awards for her work.

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