April 27 will be Ulysses S. Grant’s 195th birthday. What might he wish to say to us in 2017? I think he would voice his affirmation for the right to vote for all eligible Americans.

Voting is the underpinning of our democracy. Yet attempts to restrict the vote have occurred regularly in America. Today the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University is at the forefront of the continuing struggle to preserve the right to vote for every qualified citizen. The effort to restrict the vote is the greatest in decades. In 2016, fourteen states put voter restrictions in place for the first time in a presidential election.

A major surprise in attempting to understand the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant was the discovery of his efforts to battle voter suppression.

Ulysses Grant

Grant’s formal White House portrait

Let’s refresh our memories. In the years immediately after the Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan, in the name of white supremacy beat, whipped, maimed, kidnapped, and hanged black citizens. The Klan’s main goal was to suppress the voting of African Americans who they knew would vote overwhelmingly Republican, thereby allowing white Democrats to make gains in southern states.

Grant decided to mount a campaign against the Klan. He did so even as Congress was retreating from Reconstruction. To his dismay, some Republicans – once strongly antislavery and supportive of Reconstruction amendments – joined with Democrats in minimizing the stories of Klan violence and arguing that whatever the solutions, they should be left to southern states. When Grant watched as Klan members were arrested, prosecuted, and invariably not convicted, Grant told Congress, “The power to correct these evils is beyond the control of State authorities.”

I believe that the cries of voter fraud, led by our current President, is a pretext for even more strict voting laws. A federal court ruled in August 2016 that North Carolina’s voting rights provisions “target African Americans with almost surgical precision”.

Grant’s concerted efforts against voter suppression were appreciated by African Americans in his day. Several weeks after his reelection in 1872 he welcomed a group of African-American leaders to the White House. He told them, “I wish that every voter of the United States should stand in all respects alike. It must come.”

In 2017, we are still waiting for it to come.

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