Paul Ortiz's Emancipation Betrayed is one of those rare books that alters much of what we know about American history. Ortiz's account of Africa-American political life in Florida from Reconstruction to 1920 uncovers a previously unknown level of successful grassroots political organizing, an effort that was only defeated by Government sanctioned genocide on election day. If the facts in this book had been taught in history classes during the 1980s or 1990's, a popular uprising may well have prevented George W. Bush from stealing Florida and being installed as President in 2000.
When tens of thousands of Florida ballots cast by African Americans were voided in the 2000 presidential election, the issue was framed around hanging chads and defective election equipment. The media framed the episode as either an unfortunate accident or the natural consequence of inexperienced black voters coming to the polls.
But after reading Paul Ortiz's new book, it is clear that there was nothing unusual or aberrational about the Florida government's disenfranchisement of its African-American population. In 2000, blacks were denied voting rights through more subtle means; in 1920, a huge influx of black voters, including women able to vote for the first time, were simply murdered or threatened with death while approaching the polls.
Some would call this progress. But the result---denying African Americans equal voting rights with whites---was the same.
Most books about the African American civil rights movement have focused on struggles in Mississippi, Alabama, or Georgia. Florida has been left out, testifying to the effectiveness of a system of white supremacy so severe that blacks had to be legally barred from leaving the state.
For most Americans, the civil rights struggle began when Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus in 1955. When the Civil Rights Act was enacted ten years later, most white Americans congratulated themselves for their speed in addressing the problem.
More knowledgeable students of American history have focused the movement's origins on the young generation of African Americans who returned from Europe after fighting for democracy in World War 1. After risking their lives to make the world safe for democracy, this generation could not quietly abide the denial of democracy to blacks at home.
But Ortiz shows better than anyone previously has that, at least in Florida, the African-American community was organized politically well prior to the onset of the war. In fact, black activists in Florida saw their roots in the struggle to end slavery during the Civil War, and it was this conflict---not the war in Europe fifty years later-that gave rise to a powerful civil rights movement in the state.
Consider the situation African Americans in Florida confronted following the Civil War. They had fought on the side of the North, and prevailed against the dominant white population of the state. Until 1876, federal troops helped ensure that blacks could hold political office and become full participants in civic affairs.
When federal troops were withdrawn from the South in 1877, a generation of African American political leadership was suddenly forced to organize against former slaveowners who vowed to return to the politics of White Supremacy.
Ortiz shows how African Americans relied on churches and fraternal organizations like the Knights of Pythias to build resistance. Since these all-black entities could not be infiltrated by white spies, they became an effective underground organizing network.
For example, wages for African-Americans in Florida were abysmally low. As a result labor recruiters from Connecticut and other states came to Florida to recruit workers. But Florida's white power structure did not want their low-wage labor force leaving the state, and did everything to prevent blacks from boarding trains heading north.
In response, the Knights of Pythias organized huge groups of African Americans to get on trains outside the knowledge of local sheriffs. Whites were mystified over how these train rides were being organized, as they were completely cut off from the all-black organizations doing the work.
The Florida Legislature responded to this successful organizing effort by making it illegal to recruit workers to leave the state. Local laws were then passed around Florida making unemployment a crime, so that blacks refusing to work for low wages were arrested and sentenced to unpaid labor.
The intersection of race and class is one of the key themes of the book. Ortiz conclusively demonstrates that the chief purpose of White Supremacy was to ensure a low-wage labor force, and that black political power had to be squelched to ensure that worker protection laws were not passed or implemented.
Despite all of these massive obstacles, Florida's African-Americans remained a vibrant political force for more than a decade after Reconstruction ended in 1877. When blacks in Jacksonville mounted major protests against unemployment in 1888, a pro-labor, biracial government elected in 1886 hired 1400 African Americans to work on municipal project.
State officials then responded to the city's effort to help unemployed workers by revoking the charter of Jacksonville. The racist white governor was empowered to appoint all local officials, thus disenfranchising city voters. The white-controlled state legislature revoked three city charters during the decade.
By the 1890's, Florida was a classic fascist state. One-party rule denied democracy, and civil or economic rights to an African-American population that comprised nearly half the state until 1920. Black workers were barred from leaving the state, and faced a choice between low-wage work and forced labor.
The1920 presidential election displayed Florida's official policy of White Supremacy at its most extreme.
This was the first presidential race where women could vote, and in county after county, white officials were exasperated by the huge influx of new registrations by African-American women. White women were beseeched to equal these registration numbers, but the totals could not compete with African-American women who had decades of organizing experience.
By election day, the white power forces governing Florida feared that African-American women would upset White Supremacy and urged action. The Daytona Daily News wrote that "fostering the Negro element in matters political will not be tolerated."
The paper's prediction proved correct. On Election Day, blacks throughout Florida faced either murder or arrest if they tried to vote. Many went to the polls anyway, and suffered the consequences in what remains the worst reign of election day terror in American history.
The national NAACP demanded a Congressional inquiry into the violent denial of democracy in Florida, but to no avail. Florida Congress member Frank Clark told his colleagues that that American white men "want to see white political parties and want white men to run this country, which is a white man's country and should remain so."
When thousands of African-American voters saw their ballots uncounted in the 2000 election, the episode was framed as an unfortunate and unintended occurrence. But given Florida's longstanding history of denying democracy to African Americans, only the most naive could see this modern disenfranchisement in an innocent light.
Had Ortiz's book been published a decade earlier, there would have been a clearer historical context to Florida's actions in 2000. Such could have precipitated the mass uprising necessary to keep the Florida election count going, and may have deterred the Supreme Court from handing the presidency to George W. Bush.
As both an essential teaching of American history and a critical resource for understanding grassroots organizing today, Paul Ortiz's Emancipation Betrayed deserves the widest possible audience.
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