A rusting chain-link fence represents a “color line” for the dead in Columbia, South Carolina. In Randolph Cemetery, separated by the barrier from the well-manicured lawn of the neighboring white graveyard, lies the remains of George A. Elmore.
A black business owner and civil rights activist, Elmore is little remembered despite his achievement. But a granite monument at his grave attests to the “unmatched courage, perseverance and personal sacrifice” that saw him take on the South Carolina Democratic Party of the 1940s over its whites-only primaries – and win.
Nearly 75 years after Elmore’s battle, the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates made fervent appeals to African American voters in South Carolina ahead of the primary being held on Feb. 29. For some of the all white front-runners in the race, it could be a make-or-break moment – a failure to win over sufficient black support would be a major setback, potentially campaign-ending.
It is a far cry from the South Carolina of August 1946, when Elmore, a fair-skinned, straight-haired manager of a neighborhood five-and-dime store, consulted with local civil rights leaders and agreed to try once again to register to vote.
It followed blatant attempts to deprive African American citizens of their constitutional rights by white Democratic Party officials who would move voter registration books from store to store and hide them the moment a black voter entered.
When a clerk mistakenly allowed Elmore to register – thinking he was white, contemporary sources suggest – NAACP activists had a plaintiff to challenge the last whites-only primary in the nation.
‘Let the chips fall’
Excluding black voters at the ballot had already been ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1944’s Smith v. Allwright decision. But in defiance, the South Carolina General Assembly simply redefined the state’s Democratic Party as a private club not subject to laws regulating primaries. Gov. Olin D. Johnston declared: “White supremacy will be maintained in our primaries. Let the chips fall where they may.”
Elmore’s name was promptly purged from the rolls and a cadre of prominent civil rights activists arranged for the NAACP to plead his case.
Columbia civil rights attorney Harold Boulware filed the federal lawsuit. In June 1947, Thurgood Marshall and Robert Carter – like Boulware, graduates of the Howard University School of Law – argued Elmore’s case as a class lawsuit covering all African Americans in the state of voting age. The trial inspired a packed gallery of African American observers, including a young Matthew J. Perry Jr., a future federal district judge, who commented: “Marshall and Carter were hitting it where it should be hit.”
In July, an unlikely ally, Charleston blueblood Judge J. Waties Waring agreed, ruling that African Americans must be permitted to enroll. “It is time for South Carolina to rejoin the Union,” he concluded. “It is time … to adopt the American way of conducting elections.”
The state Democratic Party again defied the ruling, requiring voters to sign an oath supporting segregation. Judge Waring issued a permanent injunction in 1948 to open the voting rolls: “To say that these rules conform or even pretend to conform to the law as laid down in the case of Elmore v. Rice is an absurdity.”
In that year’s state primary, more than 30,000 African Americans, including George Elmore and his wife Laura, voted. Elmore remarked, “In the words of our other champion, Joe Louis, all I can say is ‘I’m glad I won.’”
His photos of the long line of voters in his community’s precinct are now in the archives of the University of South Carolina where I teach history.
In the years that followed, voter education and registration programs by civil rights organizations transformed the Democratic Party in the state, both in terms of the makeup of its membership and the policies it pursued. The move sparked the departure of many white Democrats to the Republican Party, including the segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond.
Thurmond’s defection in 1964 legitimized the move for other white Democrats and hard-core segregationists who aligned themselves with an increasingly conservative Republican Party. Not surprisingly, some of the key architects of Richard Nixon’s invidious Southern strategy, which sought to weaken the Democratic Party in the South through the use of dog-whistle politics on racial issues, came from South Carolina.
As this year’s presidential candidates focus on South Carolina, it is clear that the racial makeup of the state’s electorate is vastly different than that in Iowa or New Hampshire, two of the states where the popularity of candidates has already been tested. But Democrats should view the South Carolina primary as more than a shift from voting in small, mostly white states. They should see the state as representative of the party’s strategic core, a strong African American constituency with diverse interests and perspectives.
African Americans in South Carolina have been fighting and winning legal and political battles for voting rights and electoral power since Reconstruction and as Democrats since the 1940s.
A personal price
After Elmore’s victory in 1947, state NAACP President James M. Hinton gave a somber, prophetic warning: “White men want office, and they want the vote of our people. We will be sought after, but we must be extremely careful who we vote for. … We must have a choice between those who have fought us and those who are our friends.”
George Elmore and his family paid a price for challenging the entrenched power of the white Democratic Party in 1946. In an interview with the University of South Carolina’s Center for Civil Rights History and Research, which I lead, his 81-year-old son Cresswell Elmore recalled the retaliation the family experienced. Ku Klux Klan terrorists burned a cross in their yard and threatened their family. Laura Elmore suffered a nervous breakdown and went into a mental hospital. State agents raided Elmore’s liquor store, claiming the liquor he had bought from the standard wholesaler was illegal, and broke the bottles. Soda bottling companies and other vendors refused to send products on credit. Banks called in loans on their home and other property. Forced into bankruptcy, the family moved from house to house and the disruption scattered Cresswell and his siblings. When Elmore died in 1959 at the age of 53, only scant attention was paid to his passing.
The monument at his grave was unveiled in 1981, at a ceremony attended by civil rights veterans including his original attorney, Harold Boulware.
As the Democratic Party and presidential candidates appeal to African American voters, they would do well to remember the remarkable fight Elmore and others waged against the forces of bigotry and injustice. These historical struggles illuminate both the gains made over many generations and the ongoing battle against inequities and voter suppression tactics that persist to this day in South Carolina and across the nation.
This year’s midterms are getting more attention than usual, with high stakes for both parties. You’ve probably seen a fair amount of “horse race” coverage focusing on competition between rival candidates while downplaying policies and platforms. But if you know how to read these stories, it helps you understand what’s at stake for you and can even inform your own political participation. (Get more information like this by signing up for ProPublica’s User’s Guide to Democracy.)Think about it this way: The campaigns themselves are constantly watching certain signals — polls, fundraising, public opinion — to understand what’s going on in their races. They want to know, “What should we do next if we want to win this election?” And they adjust their tactics accordingly.
You have the power to adjust your actions, too.
See below for the important questions you should be asking yourself as we get closer to the midterms.
1. How competitive is your district?
The Cook Political Report provides real-time analysis on whether your current representative will have an easy time hanging onto their seat or if a challenger has a shot at defeating them.
The Cook Report is a nonpartisan newsletter that analyzes federal elections and campaigns — watching polls, tracking fundraising and outside spending, and talking to the campaigns and candidates — in order to assign a daily rating on the competitiveness of each race:
Solid (Republican or Democrat): These races are not considered competitive and are not likely to become closely contested.
Likely (Republican or Democrat): These seats are not considered competitive at this point, but they have the potential to become engaged.
Lean (Republican or Democrat): These are considered competitive races, but one party has an advantage.
Toss-Up: These are the most competitive; either party has a good chance of winning.
These ratings are updated daily, all based on what’s happening on the campaign trail. Look up where your district is for the:
Political organizations and nonprofit committees have spent hundreds of millions of dollars influencing the midterm elections, so tracking your candidates’ campaign finances is another insightful metric. Where did they get all that money, and how are they spending it?
One detail that can help you determine the strength of a campaign is the percentage of funds raised from individuals vs. PACs, or political action committees. A PAC is simply a collection of individuals who have pooled their money to donate to candidates. The best funded PACs are affiliated with corporations and interest groups — the NRA, Planned Parenthood and labor unions all have PACs — but they can also be funded by civically engaged folks who aren’t political operators.
A reliance on PACs, versus individual donors, can tell you something about a candidate’s institutional support versus grassroots support. A higher percentage of funds from PACs means a candidate’s donor money comes mostly in fairly large checks, as opposed to donations from individuals. A higher percentage of individual donations, on the other hand, is a sign of grassroots enthusiasm about the campaign.
To look up specific campaign fundraising details by candidate OR race type, check out ProPublica’s Election Databot.
3. But what do the numbers mean?
Most political fundraising amounts sound like a LOT of money to the average person. So, how do you know what those numbers mean?
Campaigns need cash to get their messages out, and in a competitive race it can be hard to be on television or to organize rallies if you’re not raising a ton of money.
That’s where the Cook Report ranking numbers come in handy: More competitive races typically attract more money. A toss-up race is likely to have two candidates who have raised more money than many other candidates in less competitive contests.
You can also look at the money gap between two candidates. If a candidate is at the lower end of the fundraising scale, particularly against a well-funded competitor, that usually indicates their chances are not great. (But there are exceptions — see June’s Democratic primary race in New York’s 14th Congressional District, in which 28-year-old challenger Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated the highly funded incumbent congressman Joe Crowley in a major upset. So don’t stop believin’ if your candidate of choice is outspent. Money is important, but it’s not the only factor in getting elected.)
Another way to look into your candidates’ issues is to look up your candidates’ press releases on ProPublica’s Represent database. Done well, press releases are a way for candidates to tell voters who they are and set their positions on issues. (These can also conveniently double as venue for trash-talking their opponents.)
For your local races, the League of Women Voters has the goods
There’s only so much ProPublica can track with our data on federal candidates — which is why we’ve partnered with the League of Women Voters, which has a trove of information all the way down your ballot. The League is nonpartisan and works to arm citizens with the information they need to confidently vote.
For its Vote411.org project, the League reached out to every single candidate running for local and state office and asked each one a set of identical questions, like:
What experiences qualify you to represent the citizens living in your district?
What would be your top three priorities if elected?
How will you work to increase job opportunities for your constituents?
Because the League has so much juice in the political space, the majority of candidates actually answered, in their own words, allowing you to see where those running for office in your community stand on the issues.
You can get a list of all the information that the League of Women Voters has on local, state and federal candidates and ballot measures by searching for your address or state here.
Now that you can put race ratings, campaign statements and fundraising into context, use the Election DataBot to look up the latest information in your own House and Senate races.
Florida’s midterm Senate election is a race to watch this November – and not just because it will be a tight match pitting a sitting governor, Republican Rick Scott, against a sitting senator, Democrat Bill Nelson.
Florida is home to the country’s largest foreign-born black population. One in three black Miami metropolitan region residents today is an immigrant, according to the Pew Research Center. Many are from the Caribbean.
I have studied voting patterns of African-Americans, Cape Verdeans and West Indians in four cities: Boston, Chicago, Miami and New York City.
I discovered that while these populations are mostly Democratic, foreign-born black communities in all four cities are more willing than African-Americans to put aside partisan differences and vote Republican.
Haitians, in particular, lean in a more conservative direction than African-Americans and other Caribbean communities. My research found that Haitian voters in Boston, Chicago, Miami and New York City are more likely to identify as moderate or conservative than African-Americans.
Haitians are also more likely to be members of the Republican Party and to run for office as Republicans. The first and only Haitian-American in Congress, Mia Love of Utah’s 4th district, is a Republican.
In Florida, almost 4 percent of the Haitian-born population is Republican, according to University of Florida political scientist Daniel Smith. Just under 20 percent of Florida’s Haitian Americans are Democrats. Many others are not registered voters in the U.S., though they may remain active in Haitian politics.
As I outline in my book, Celestin’s campaign appealed directly to Haitian voters in this municipality of 60,000, by arguing that they needed their own political representation in a largely African-American city historically governed by white elected officials.
The 2001 election brought not just Celestin to power but also put a Haitian-American majority onto the five-member city council, ushering in a new era in North Miami politics. Haitian voters had successfully replaced the city’s old white political leadership with new black leadership.
All of this means that neither Florida Senate candidate should take black voters for granted in November.
Nelson, the Democratic sitting senator, has tradition on his side. Black Floridians – like African-Americans nationwide – have voted overwhelmingly Democratic in every election since 1948. In 2012, higher-than-usual black turnout for Barack Obama helped Nelson handily secure his second Senate term.
Florida’s Trinidad-born Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll was the first black female Republican elected to the Florida legislature and the first black Republican woman on a statewide ticket when she ran as Scott’s running mate in 2010.
Scott alienates black voters
Carroll resigned in 2013 amid accusations of financial impropriety. She later wrote a book accusing Scott of treating her like an “unwanted stepchild” and using her to win black and female votes.