COMMENTARY

Before "Stop the Steal" there was "Free, white and over 21"

The "free, White, and over 21" mentality was well represented among those who stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6

By Yvette LaGonterie

Published February 27, 2022 12:00PM (EST)

A Stop The Steal is posted inside of the Capitol Building after a pro-Trump mob broke into the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. A pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol, breaking windows and clashing with police officers. Trump supporters gathered in the nation's capital today to protest the ratification of President-elect Joe Biden's Electoral College victory over President Trump in the 2020 election. (Jon Cherry/Getty Images)
A Stop The Steal is posted inside of the Capitol Building after a pro-Trump mob broke into the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. A pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol, breaking windows and clashing with police officers. Trump supporters gathered in the nation's capital today to protest the ratification of President-elect Joe Biden's Electoral College victory over President Trump in the 2020 election. (Jon Cherry/Getty Images)

It was late when we returned to the hotel. We parked the rental cars in the back lot, nearest the entrance that opened to the shortest walk to our block of rooms. A sign posted on that door directed that the rear entrance not be used after 9 p.m. My coworkers were fatigued from a long workday followed by an evening out with drinks. One objected to walking around the building to the front of the hotel.  While we all stood in the dark, she exclaimed that we should disregard the sign because, after all, "We are free, White, and over 21." The ease with which the phrase fell from her mouth left no doubt that she had uttered it comfortably many times before. However, on that occasion, her mouth spoke before her mind caught up.

I was the only one who did not fit her description. I was born with a permanent early summer tan and tight curl to my hair.  Her declaration of privilege was based on her membership in a group to which I do not belong. Admittedly, after dusk and from a distance, my African ancestry might not be noticed. That was not the case that evening; these colleagues knew me. Everyone grew silent. The offender noticed the change in the group's disposition. Then, as responsible U.S. Department of Justice employees in town on official business, we all walked to the front door.

Thirty years later, the "free, White, and over 21" mentality was well represented among those who stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. After Trump told them "we will stop the steal" a mob broke through the doors of the Capitol Building with a fearlessness stemming from the belief that the rules do not apply to them. Jenna Ryan, who recorded herself participating in the insurrection, paraphrased this slogan when she proclaimed on her Twitter account that she would not go to jail because she is blond and has white skin.

RELATED: Mitch McConnell's moment of truth: For many whites, Black people aren't real "Americans"

"Free, white, and over 21" sought to overturn an election, to deny the majority of American voters their will. They failed.  Their state-level elected adherents are now legislating restrictions calculated to diminish ballot access to minority voters.  This is not a new assault on a multi-racial democracy; it is just the latest chapter.

The slogan "Free, white, and 21" was reportedly popularized in the 1820s during the movement to extend the vote to men who were not property owners. Including "white" in their chant was a pledge to white supremacy. In several states, free African American men who met the property requirements had the right to vote during the nation's early years. However, even as the white proletariat was gaining the franchise, it was being stripped from people of color in some of those states — New Jersey in 1807, Maryland in 1810, North Carolina in 1835 and Pennsylvania in 1838.


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New York's original state constitution did not prohibit suffrage to free people of color. The Democratic-Republican party was concerned that free Negros overwhelmingly voted for the Federalist party. In 1811, an act to prevent fraud at elections was passed. Section III specified onerous and costly documentation requirements specifically for Negros. Ten years later, in 1821, New York State reduced the property requirement for White males, but increased it for African Americans.

The Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1870, prohibited the denial or abridgment of any citizen's right to vote based on race, color or previous condition of servitude. Nevertheless, those who were "free, white, and over 21" in the Southern states quickly established repugnant clauses that did not mention race or servitude, but used other text to precisely deny African Americans their right to vote. 

Judicial and legislative initiatives failed to overcome the Southern insistence on preserving white supremacy through voter suppression, fierce segregation and mob violence. The infamous white supremacist, South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond, hypocritically argued against federal laws to outlaw discrimination at the polls and elsewhere, saying that it was not the government's place to regulate human behavior. Thurmond knew well that the South was firmly in the business of policing human behavior through thousands of racially oppressive Jim Crow laws.

It took a brilliant organizer, thousands of activists, the martyrdom of too many, and the mettle of one president to finally achieve the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965. The VRA was Dr. Martin Luther King's great legislative accomplishment. Its impact has been monumental. Dr. King famously said that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. But justice's opponents sometimes manage to twist the arc. We must not let it bend back in the direction of injustice.

"Black Americans vote at the same rate as Americans." When Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made this Freudian slip on January 19, 2022, his mouth may have been speaking before his mind caught up. Who does McConnell view as Americans? Besides, the rising African American voting rate appears to be the "problem" many of Senator McConnell's GOP colleagues across our nation are trying to "solve." That was the finding of the federal appeals court in 2016 when it struck down the North Carolina voter identification law. The court's decision stated that provisions of the North Carolina law deliberately "target African-Americans with almost surgical precision" in order to suppress Black voter turnout.

McConnell's impolitic reasoning was his justification for opposing the John Lewis Voting Rights bill.  But his claim is incorrect. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, 62.6% of the Black American electorate voted in 2020, compared to 70.9% of White Americans. The eight percentage point gap is the widest difference between White and Black voter turn-out in a presidential election since 1996. The gap is even wider when the 70.9% White voter turn-out is compared to the 58.4% for all non-white voters (Black, Latino and Asian).

Black voter turnout swelled in 2008 when Barack Obama was elected. A surge of restrictive legislation and electoral changes were introduced by many states in response. The 1965 Voting Rights Act included a formidable provision requiring that electoral changes in states with a history of discouraging African American suffrage be cleared by the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) before implementation. Shelby County, Alabama, did not want its desired changes subject to clearance, thus sued the U.S. Justice Department.  The U.S. Supreme Court's 2013 decision in Shelby County v Holder struck down the 1965 Act's essential preclearance requirement. Following the removal of that DOJ review, the surge became a storm. For example, over 1,000 polling sites have been selectively closed in the states once subject to oversight.

Who deserves to vote? Everyone who is eligible. How should elections be administered? By making it as easy as possible for every eligible citizen who wants a voice in the nation's future to vote. What do you think? Honest and accurate information should be widely available to help each of us make our decisions. What is not democracy is the effort to limit the franchise to only those who agree with you — or look like you.

From the mid-1800s through the 1950s, "Free, white, and over 21" was a catchphrase commonly included in books and movie scripts. In the 20th century, white protagonists frequently claimed these three attributes as the evidence of their freedom to do as they please. In the 1959 apocalyptic film, "The World, the Flesh, and the Devil," Harry Belafonte's character Ralph and Inger Stevens' character Sarah found themselves the last survivors of a nuclear blast. At one point, Sarah declared to Ralph "I am free, white, and over 21." Belafonte's Ralph replied to his new friend that her carefree toss of that expression "was like an arrow in my guts."

Although the phrase has gone underground, the sentiment has not. The discriminatory intent of many recently enacted and proposed state laws and directives is transparent. The right to vote must be protected from those who strive to limit it, again. 

More stories on voting rights and democracy: 


Yvette LaGonterie

Yvette LaGonterie has retired from a senior federal career in immigration and homeland security. She is currently an independent writer and historian residing in Washington, D.C.

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American History Commentary Fifteenth Amendment Stop The Steal Voting Rights