Denying the Franchise as Incitement to Genocide

Demonstrators outside the White House hold signs demanding the right to vote and protesting police brutality against civil rights demonstrators in Alabama in March 1965. (Credit: Library of Congress)

In 1951, William Patterson and the Civil Rights Congress presented a 238-page document to the United Nations accusing the United States government of genocide against Black Americans. According to the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, genocide did not mean a wholesale slaughter of people. Instead it included “killing members of the group” with the intent to destroy in whole or in part a national, racial, ethnic or religious group. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group counted as genocide along with the actual murder of people. Patterson’s thoroughly researched and meticulous document listed several crimes against the Black community and included denying the right to vote as an “incitement to genocide.” Laws, violence, and intimidation worked in tandem to keep Black Americans away from the polls and this amounted to shutting Black America out from avenues to represent themselves, and to confront the systems of oppression that perpetuated genocide.

For Patterson, American genocide took the form of harassment, beating, disfigurement, sexual assault, and just as often death. The concerted efforts of states to deny voting rights, and the federal governments continued refusal to uphold constitutional protections “reinforced a system” that strengthened white supremacy, trained each new generation into the supremacist system and guaranteed “genocide” of Black Americans. Patterson argued that without access to the ballot, the efforts of state leaders to deny voting rights and federal indifference would continue into the foreseeable future. He asked that the United Nations intervene

The petition catalogued crimes perpetrated against Black Americans across the United States, most often by law enforcement, just as often by white civilians, but almost always unprosecuted. It also included crimes Black citizens allegedly committed and were punished for without benefit of trial. These alleged crimes included refusing sex with a police officer, “jostling” a white woman, walking into a building, not saying “yes sir,” riding public transportation, going to the movies, going on strike, bumping into a police officer, being out after dark, riding in a cab, returning home from war, rear-ending a car or conversely being rear-ended, being too slow to take wallet out, having a light skinned wife, going to work, refusing to pay a police “shakedown,” wearing green on St. Patrick’s day, and the list went on. But attempts to vote, registering to vote, or being killed after voting were important because it demonstrated what Patterson argues was the failure of the federal government to intervene and state official’s intentional incitement to violence to prevent Black voting. Patterson cited the comments of South Carolina Governor and former Supreme Court Justice and Secretary of State James E. Byrnes when he stated that he would “find a way” to retain the white primary. This was a deliberate incitement to prevent a citizen from practicing their rights and coded language to encourage white citizens to stop Black voting efforts.

Georgia was prominent in the petition, however, because of the murder of three Black men who tried to vote and the failure of the state to punish their killers. Patterson accused officials of working with the Georgia Ku Klux Klan to physically prevent Black voters. This coalition between state officials and Klan members was an important aspect of the petition because Patterson argued that the Klan operated with the unofficial sanction of the federal government. A lengthy document detailing the Klan’s operations in Georgia under the governorship of first Eugene Talmadge and later his son Herman, both of whom courted the Klan, was included in the petition.

In 1946, while Eugene Talmadge was governor, Maceo Snipes was shot after voting. Snipes was a combat veteran who served thirty months in the Army during World War II. When he returned home, he worked his father’s farm in Butler, Georgia. Assuming that since he fought for his country he should be able to vote, Snipes voted in the Democratic primary. The next day white men came to his home, called him outside, and shot him. Snipes had to walk miles to get help, he died a few days later. His killers claimed self-defense and were exonerated. Only days after Snipes murder, two Black couples were murdered by a Klan gang, heightening fear in the state. Snipes’ family was too afraid to claim his body and never knew where he was buried. That same month Herman Talmadge was a featured speaker at a Klan meeting where he praised the Klan in helping get his father re-elected and discussed the dangers of Black voting. One month later his father was dead, and the following month the Georgia State legislature named Herman governor 1.

Two years later on September 8, 1948, two white men invaded the home of Isiah Nixon in Alston, Georgia. Earlier that day he asked election officials at his county office about filling out a ballot in the governor race. The officials advised that it would not be a good idea, he insisted, and became the only Black man to vote in Montgomery county. That evening two white men entered Nixon’s home and shot him three times in front of his wife and six children. Nixon died later in the hospital. The murderers, brothers named Johnson, claimed self-defense. The Department of Justice declined to prosecute the Johnson brothers stating that southern courts cried foul whenever the federal government tried to intervene. This case exemplified Patterson’s larger point, denying the right to vote was a federal offense, but the government refused to act, refused to intervene in southern courts, and therefore, refused to defend the Black citizens right to vote. The killers would be exonerated and serve no time 2.

Two months later Robert Mallard, who Patterson described as a leader in the voting rights movement, was ambushed on his way home from church. The ambush was engineered by a “robed band” that shot and killed Mallard in front of his wife, toddler and two friends. Mallard had recently been warned not to vote. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation arrested Mallard’s wife under suspicion that she arranged the murder, which some saw as a way to “shift the blame” away from the Klan. They also arrested the other two people in the car, both teenagers, under suspicion that they were in on the “family plot.” They were all eventually released and Amy Mallard identified two men as her husband’s killers. At their trial the all-white jury deliberated for twenty minutes and exonerated the murderers. These actions were not just mob violence, the governor encouraged violence. Patterson noted that Governor Herman Talmadge “incited genocide” when he said on the radio that “We” would fight “hand to hand with all our weapons” and never submit, to maintain all aspects of segregation.3

The Snipes, Nixon, and Mallard cases represented the costs of allowing the states to operate judicial systems in the absence of federal oversight. But that federal oversight was not totally indifferent; Patterson charged that the federal governments inaction was deliberate. Federal crimes were violated, but the government chose not to pursue the cases for fear of state complaints about overreach; meanwhile Black Americans risked their lives trying to exercise constitutionally guaranteed protections. In the communist Daily Worker Charles Mann argued that denying the right to vote was not a bipartisan issue since both Parties ignored the use of terrorism to prevent Black voting in places like Georgia, all the while eagerly advocating the registration of white voters. Mann stated that no elected official had a mandate because of voter exclusions and that preventing voting upheld an oligarchic government, unrepresentative of the average American. The United States could not claim to any reasonable person to be practicing democracy when its government was maintained through terrorist tactics and legislative acrobats that kept the Black and poor from the polls 4.

Patterson argued that this amounted to advocacy of genocide, both parties were to blame for bending to the will of cruel and elitist systems that upheld white supremacy. Even while accusing the federal government of genocide, Patterson and the Civil Rights Congress faced their own legal harassment. The petition was quickly dismissed as part of a communist plot and ignored by American officials. The United Nations took no action, though a Polish delegate did introduce it to the general assembly. This linkage between the denial of citizenship rights and the willful genocide of a group of people raises questions about the regular disenfranchisement of American citizens, particularly Black Americans. The failure of the federal government to ensure voting rights and the deliberate legal exclusions pushed by political parties upholds an elitist system that shuts many Americans out from the most basic democratic practices and perpetuates an unrepresentative government. 

  1. Dan Barry, “The Names were Separated, Though the Lives Collided,” New York Times, March 18, 2007, 20.
  2. “Demand Georgia Guard Witnesses to Poll Slaying,” Daily Worker,  September 14, 1948, 1, 11.
  3. “Charges Georgia Sleuths Seek to Aid Lynchers,” Daily Worker, December 1, 1948, 1.
  4. Charles Mann, “How the Negro is Robbed of His Vote,” Daily Worker, December 19, 1952, 4.
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Denise Lynn

Dr. Denise Lynn is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Southern Indiana. Her research centers on women in the American Communist Party during the Popular Front. Follow her on Twitter @DeniseLynn13.