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Critics of Georgia election bills evoke Jim Crow laws; GOP says label is unfair

The early 20th century laws codified segregation.

ATLANTA — Critics of a voting bill that passed the Georgia House Monday said repeatedly that the measure turned back the clock on voting rights – and would return Georgia to Jim Crow.  

"Jim Crow" is a term describing segregation laws that also made it next-to-impossible for African Americans to vote in Georgia – as well as across the south. Jim Crow was a fictional 19th century character which mocked African Americans.

Critics of current Republican election reforms have frequently reached back rhetorically into the South’s ugly voting history. The House bill that passed Monday "is nationally known as Jim Crow in a suit and tie," state Rep. Bee Nguyen (D-Atlanta) told House members during debate on the bill.

Republicans say invoking Jim Crow to criticize the current election bills is unfair and overly dramatic.  

Jim Crow-era laws made it illegal for Black Georgians to vote in Georgia’s Democratic primaries. The laws also required literacy tests and poll taxes that created barriers to Black voters. And Jim Crow created the atmosphere where Blacks risked injury or death if they tried to register to vote.  

"It was harder (then) because there was a lot of physical danger," said state Rep. Al Williams (D-Liberty County), an African American who first voted in Georgia in 1966. "People lost jobs, were run out of shanties where they were sharecroppers. Just for wanting to vote. Physically, it was harder" than it is now.

Voting rights have advanced since Jim Crow got dismantled – to the point where Georgia voters sent their first African-American US Senator, Raphael Warnock, to Washington this year.  

But this year’s Republican bills that limit voting access don’t restore Jim Crow. They do make it more difficult to vote absentee and curb opportunities to early vote. 

Williams said the attitudes that drove Jim Crow are still around, but are more subtle now.

"It’s disheartening when (Georgia leaders) move from out-and-out ‘we’re not gonna let you vote,’ to now, a very sophisticated ‘we just want to make it fair,’" Williams told 11Alive.