Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Steven Hahn analyzed America’s Reconstruction period and touched upon voter suppression Thursday in the second annual Littlefield Lectures.
George Littlefield, whom the series is named after, was UT’s most generous donor for its first 50 years, but he had a past as a Confederate soldier and a slave owner.
History professor David Gracy, a living descendant of Littlefield, attended the lecture and said the topic of Reconstruction was an appropriate approach to Littlefield’s controversial legacy. Gracy added that Littlefield created a fund to preserve historical documents from the South and always sought for an objective view of history, despite his past.
“(He supported) the writing of a true and impartial history of the South,” Gracy said. “He understood and appreciated that.”
Hahn discussed the history of voter registration, which he said has undergone “deep traditions of political violence and illiberalism.”
Protecting an American’s access to the ballot has been a dilemma in our democracy, Hahn said.
“In the 19th century, there were a whole variety of ways to exclude people from voting,” Hahn said. “What we always found is that the greatest obstacle to participation in elections is registration.”
After the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870, Hahn said a large white American response quickly arose to suppress voter registration of African-Americans and other minorities.
“According to one estimate, the second half of the 19th century witnessed at least 200 vigilante movements that generally advanced the interests of largely Protestant middle and upper classes,” Hahn said.
Hahn said state governments were also complicit in restricting ballot access by passing numerous legal requirements targeting non-white Americans.
“Poll taxes, literacy requirements, (the) Understanding Clause, residency requirements — all were basically passed to work against the experiences of black life without having to use racial terminology,” Hahn said.
In current elections, Hahn said there is a general slump in American voter turnout.
“The worst, most frightening possibility is the passive political public,” Hahn said. “Our society … has been reduced to spectators rather than participants.”
After the lecture, history department chair Jacqueline Jones said she had concerns about how the ballot box continues to be suppressed.
“When the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed, I think a lot of people felt that the struggle is over,” Jones said. “And yet we (still see) some really creative efforts to suppress voting in this country.”