Pitts: Taking aim at 21st century Jim Crow
Kemba Smith Pradia went to Tallahassee, Fla., last week to demand the right to vote.
Back in the ’90s when she was just Kemba Smith, she became a poster child for the excesses and inanities of the so-called War on Drugs. Pradia, then a college student in Virginia, became involved with, and terrorized by, a man who choked and punched her regularly and viciously. By the impenetrable logic of battered women, she thought it was her fault.
The boyfriend was a drug dealer. Pradia never handled drugs, never used drugs, never sold drugs. But she sometimes carried his gun in her purse. She flew to New York with drug money strapped to her body.
Eventually, she was busted. And this good girl from a good home, who had never been in trouble before, was sentenced to more than 24 years.
In the 12 years since President Bill Clinton commuted her sentence, Pradia has theoretically been a free woman. Except that she cannot vote.
So last week, Pradia, along with actor Charles S. Dutton, joined NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous at Florida’s old state capitol building to launch a campaign demanding restoration of voting rights to former felons.
CNN reports that Florida, Virginia and nine other states embrace what might be called polices of “eternal damnation,” i.e., laws that continue to punish former felons and deny them the vote long after they have done their time, finished their parole, rejoined society.
“Welcome back, Jim Crow” said the headline on a Miami Herald editorial.
Ain’t that the truth. Between policies like these, new restrictions on Sunday and early voting and, of course, Voter ID laws, the NAACP estimates 23 million Americans stand to be disenfranchised – a disproportionate number of them African-American.
“If you want to vote, show it,” trilled a TV commercial in support of Pennsylvania’s Voter ID law before a judge blocked its implementation. The tenor of the ad was telling, though, implicitly suggesting that voting is a privilege for which one should be happy to jump through hoops.
But voting is emphatically not a privilege. It is a right. By definition, then, it must be broadly accessible. These laws ensure that it is not.
The NAACP has challenged us to recognize the brutish goals of Jim Crow America never died, but simply reshaped themselves to the sensibilities of the 21st century. It would be a critical mistake not to understand this. Indeed, the advice of the late Teddy Pendergrass seems freshly apropos: Wake up, everybody. And realize:
Garbage is garbage, no matter how pristine the can.
• Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.