Vernon Dahmer was a civil rights activist who died after saving his wife and their children when the Ku Klux Klan firebombed their home in 1966 in Forrest County. At the statue's base are some of his final words he spoke as he lay dying in the hospital: "If you don't vote, you don't count." After his death, his wife Ellie Dahmer continued working as a voting rights activist, ran for office and won a seat on the Forrest County Election Commission. Forrest County unveiled the state at the courthouse on Jan. 6, 2020. Photo by Ashton Pittman

Former Governor: Mr. Watson Tips Hand When He Disparages ‘Woke’ Voters and Students

Recently, Mississippi Secretary of State Michael Watson said that the United States would suffer if more “woke” and “uninformed” college students are registered to vote under President Biden’s executive order on voting which, Watson claimed, included “automatic voter registration.”

Secretary of State Michael Watson says he is concerned about “woke” college students not being “competent” to vote. Photo courtesy Mississippi Secretary of State’s Office

There are so many wrong things about this statement, it’s hard to know where to start. First, the President’s executive order did not include either automatic voter registration (although this would be great) or any mention of colleges. It simply tells agency heads to come up with a plan “to promote voter registration and participation.”  

One of the possible parts of such a plan would be to give out voter registration and mail-in ballot applications “in the course of regular services.” If, under Watson’s premise, a person needs to be “informed” in order to vote, then presumably he wouldn’t meet this qualification and shouldn’t be allowed to vote.

Second, in a democracy, making registering to vote, and actually voting, easier is a worthy and essential goal. The notion that only people who agree with your politics should be able to vote is something espoused by dictators and authoritarian regimes. 

Third, and most important, he’s the Mississippi secretary of state who has the duty of overseeing elections and voting. To use this authority to try and limit who gets to vote is a throwback to the awful time of Jim Crow. Under those laws and practices, Black Americans were systematically, ruthlessly, and often violently kept from voting to ensure the preservation of segregation and white supremacy. 

Because of its terrible history in this area, Mississippi has a special burden to protect voting rights. To begin with, so many people were murdered simply for advocating for voting rights. The well-known are heroes and martyrs like Medgar Evers, Vernon Dahmer, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. There are others, equally heroic, who made the ultimate sacrifice who are less well known and countless more who were threatened, intimidated, assaulted, and fired to keep them from voting and participating in our democracy. 

Former Gov. Ray Mabus writes that so many people were murdered simply for advocating for voting rights. The well-known are heroes and martyrs like Medgar Evers killed at his home in Jackson by a white supremacist. Photo courtesy Evers Family

One of the ways Black Mississippians were barred from voting during Jim Crow were the infamous “literacy tests.” These tests had only one purpose: to keep Black Mississippians from casting a ballot, not to ensure that people were “informed.” 

It is also unclear why the secretary of state went after college students. The most plausible explanation is that he is worried that today’s college students, or at least the “woke” ones, may not share his views on racial exclusion and may instead actually believe in the promise of trying to achieve a more perfect union through participating and voting.  

Mr. Watson tips his hand when he uses the term “woke.” Woke started in the Black community to describe people who were aware of and acknowledged systemic racism. Now it is increasingly used to mock those who hold anti-racist views. Interesting, telling and exceedingly strange that he would not want those who are against racism to vote. 

Fannie Lou Hamer, a former sharecropper in Sunflower County in the Mississippi Delta, became a voting-rights activist in the 1960s, but was returned about from registering at the courthouse in Indianola. She kept fighting. Photo by Warren K. Leffler, U.S. News & World Report

The secretary of state and others don’t even try to hide their motivations, which is a return to the days before the Civil Rights Movement and the Voting Rights Act. Since they cannot win on the strength of their ideas or character, they are attempting to turn back the clock and deny the vote to people of color and those who are against racism and white supremacy.

In my Inaugural speech as governor of Mississippi 33 years ago, I said that “a new day depends fundamentally on our resolve to banish racism forever from the State of Mississippi. We know in our hearts that the chains of prejudice have bound more than one group; they have held all of us back. A society divided against itself cannot prosper.” 

This has been true for centuries and remains true today. We must continue to fight for equal access to the sacred right to vote. Our future depends on it.

The Mississippi Free Press invites Secretary of State Michael Watson to write an opinion piece responding to the above column. Email donna@mississippifreepress.org.

This MFP Voices essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Mississippi Free Press, its staff or board members. To submit an essay for the MFP Voices section, send up to 1,200 words and factcheck information to azia@mississippifreepress.com. We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints.

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