There are amazing and almost eerie parallels between where America finds itself in 2020 and where the nation was a century ago. In 1920, one hundred years ago, America was in the midst of a pandemic, racial conflict, and a contentious presidential election.
In March, 1918, the Spanish Flu was officially recognized. On March 13, 2020, Covid-19 was proclaimed to constitute a national emergency. In both cases, the threat of the pandemic was not immediately publicized. In 1920, Woodrow Wilson did not want to hinder the war effort, and in 2020, Donald Trump expressed his reluctance to cause panic among the American public. The Spanish Flu that lasted from 1918 until April 1920 killed 675, 000 Americans. As of the writing of this article, more than 200,000 Americans have died as a result of the Coronavirus. The death rate from the virus is projected to reach 410,00 by January 1, 2021, if the practice of wearing masks is not followed.
Racial conflict was at the forefront of the American mind in 1920 as it is in 2020. In 1920, African Americans protested and sought an end to lynching and other forms of racially motivated violence. The United States reeled from an explosion of racially motivated violence in American cities during the “Red Summer” of 1919. In 2020, multiracial protests against systematic racism and police brutality, in particular the killing of unarmed black men and women, occurred nationwide.
The right of African Americans to participate in the democratic process was central to the 1920 Presidential election as it is in 2020. The 2020 Presidential election awakens the history of black voter suppression, especially in the state of Florida. In 1920, across Florida, black organizations had been conducting voter registration drives. Black voters were expected to vote for the Republican candidate, Warren Harding, who went on to win 60% of the national vote. In an effort to preserve white supremacy and the white Democratic one-party rule of that era, Ku Klux Klan intimidated potential black voters.
On November 1, the day before the election, KKK paraded through the streets of the black communities in Ocoee and warned that “not a single Negro will be permitted to vote.” When blacks attempted to vote the next day, they were turned away. In response to black attempts to exercise their legal and democratic right to vote, blacks were murdered in a brutal massacre, one black community was destroyed, and another purged of blacks for more than 60 years. The November 2, 1920, Ocoee Election Day Massacre has been referred to as the single bloodiest day in modern American political history.
The 2020 presidential election has triggered an avalanche of vitriolic attacks and attempts to suppress the African American vote. In Florida, legal tactics, as opposed to the extra-legal racial violence in 1920, are being used to suppress the black vote. In 2018, Florida voters approved Amendment 4 to the state’s constitution that restored voting rights to as many as 1.4 million residents who had been denied the right to vote because of a prior felony conviction. Only those convicted of murder or felony sexual assault could not qualify.
Race is a factor as one in four who could not vote because of prior felony convictions are black. Several months later, after 12,600 felons registered as Democrats, Florida’s Republican legislature passed a law, SB 7066, requiring felons to pay their financial penalties, which if not paid would cost 774,00 the right to vote. While $23 million has been collected to clear the debt of more than 20,000 felons, the Florida Republican Attorney General now questions whether the donations are an illegal incentive to vote. It remains to be seen if this legal practice, like those of Jim Crow, literacy tests, poll taxes, and counting jelly beans will deny black voters their constitutional rights.
One hundred years later, the question remains: will African Americans still be denied the right to participate in the democratic process? Voter suppression in 2020, just as in 1920, undermines American democracy and makes a mockery of the United States Constitution. How far has America come in 100 years? Will we as a nation remain submerged in the racism that characterized 1920 America? Only the weeks ahead and the response to the outcome of the 2020 election will indicate where America is a century later.