Gene Nichol: When Obama Talked About Voter Suppression, He Was Talking About NC’s Sins

Former President Barack Obama acknowledges the crowd after addressing services for the late Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Thursday, July 30, 2020. (Image via AP, Pool)

By Gene Nichol

August 12, 2020

Gene Nichol, the NC anti-poverty crusader, writes how today’s voter suppression sins came up in President Obama’s eulogy of John Lewis.

It’s been two weeks since President Barack Obama delivered John Lewis’ eulogy at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.

The marking of Congressman Lewis’ passing was a singular event in American history. Obama noted the surpassing honor: “speaking from the pulpit of the (church’s) greatest pastor, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to pay respects to perhaps his finest disciple, John Robert Lewis.”

Someday, Obama noted, when “we form a more perfect union, whether it’s years from now, or decades, or even if it takes another two centuries, John Lewis will be a founding father of that fuller, fairer, better America.” 

The entire nation (except Donald Trump) seemed to echo the sentiment.  

Obama, more controversially, also believed himself required to highlight “the attacks on democracy (Lewis) devoted his time on earth to fighting.” Bull Connor and George Wallace may be gone, he said, but we still see ”police officers kneeling on the necks of black Americans” and “federal agents using tear gas and batons against peaceful demonstrators.” 

Obama continued: 

“We may no longer have to guess the number of jelly beans in a jar to cast a ballot. But even as we sit here, there are those in power doing their darnedest to discourage people from voting – by closing polling locations, and targeting minorities and students with restrictive ID laws, and attacking our voting rights with surgical precision.” 

Broadening the portrait, the former president charged: 

“Once the Supreme Court weakened the Voting Rights Act, some state legislatures unleashed a flood of laws designed specifically to make voting harder; especially where there’s a lot of minority turnout and population growth.” 

That wasn’t an accident, Obama concluded. It was ”an attack on what John Lewis fought for.” 

When I read those words, I wondered if North Carolina Republican leaders squirmed a bit. 

I’m not saying President Obama was talking ONLY about North Carolina. There are other aggressive anti-equality states, to be sure. Especially in our neighborhood. 

But Obama clearly was talking about the Tar Heel State.

His chosen points of emphasis and illustration apparently place us, in Obama’s eyes, at the forefront of the movement to dismantle John Lewis’ legacy. 

The words “surgical precision” come, famously and specifically, from the eloquent federal court rulings invalidating major components of North Carolina’s “monster” voter ID law. “Surgical precision” is not a walking around political phrase, free-floating. It’s Tar Heel bred. We’ve also enthusiastically closed polling places, going after students and African-Americans. And we’ve been happy to brag on it, even on national TV.   

The “once the Supreme Court weakened the Voting Rights Act” reference likely parallels Republican state Sen. Tom Apodaca’s famed giddy boast, after learning of the Supreme Court’s Shelby County decision — “now we can go with the full bill.” Hot dog. No more half-measures on voter suppression. 

Apodaca’s enthusiasm has been much discussed in the national voting rights literature. And, of course, President Obama’s Justice Department did sue us for trampling on the Fourteenth Amendment. Eric Holder explained he would allow “no open season” for North Carolina  to “suppress voting rights.”

Obama ended by saying, “what a gift John Lewis was … God bless this gentle soul who pulled (America) closer to its promise.” 

It’s my sense almost all North Carolinians agreed. But I wondered how many understood that the Republican leaders who act in our names are so potently committed to “an attack on what John Lewis fought for.”    


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