Connie Schultz: Ghosts of Jim Crow haunt Ohio voters
Signs of trouble are rising like the ghosts of Jim Crow in the heart of Cleveland's African-American community.
Billboards, lots of billboards, looming large and menacing where black citizens live.
Across the street from a public housing development.
Near the community college.
A short walk from just about anywhere, including the home of Mayor Frank Jackson, who is black.
The billboards' target: African-American voters who support President Barack Obama.
The billboards' picture: a giant gavel lowering a verdict of guilty.
The billboards' written message: VOTER FRAUD IS A FELONY — UP to 31⁄2 YRS and $10,000 FINE.
The billboards' unwritten message: We will do anything to keep you from voting.
The plan, of course, is to intimidate an entire community of innocent Americans accustomed to withering suspicions steeped in race.
Two facts about voting in Ohio:
1) Voter fraud is a myth — just as it is everywhere else in the country.
2) Felons who have served their time are allowed to vote.
It doesn't take much to scare ex-offenders away from the polls. Redemption may be the law, but it does not reside in the hearts of those who will go to extraordinary lengths to keep certain people down and out.
I am ever mindful of Michael Green, an African-American man in Cleveland who was falsely incarcerated for 13 years for a rape he didn't commit. After I wrote a series about Green's ordeal in 2002, he extracted one promise from me, kept to this day. Whenever I speak to classrooms with young black men, I share Green's warning: Never run when a police officer shows up. No matter how innocent you are, stop in your tracks and put your hands in the air.
Clear Channel Outdoor owns the billboards sprouting in Cleveland. The company also allows the ad's sponsor to remain anonymous. "Paid for by a Private Family Foundation," the signs read.
We've seen this kind of billboard before — in 2010 in Wisconsin.
The photo: black faces peering from behind prison bars.
The message: VOTER FRAUD IS A FELONY — 3 YRS & $10,000 FINE.
The target: African-American voters.
The sponsor: "A Private Family Foundation."
What sort of "family" does such a thing? We do not know their names. We cannot see their faces. This, in 2012.
"The message is offensive," the Rev. Ken Wheeler told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2010, "and implicitly and explicitly creates a climate of fear in the African-American community that was historically denied justice and discouraged from voting."
Clear Channel Outdoor spokesman Jim Cullinan told The Plain Dealer that this anonymous family foundation has purchased space for at least 30 billboards, most of them on Cleveland's east side, where the majority of Cleveland's African-American voters live. He offered a palms-in-the-air explanation that Clear Channel has nothing to do with the content of its billboards. He would not identify the advertiser. This is business, you understand.
A number of Cleveland's African-American leaders, including pastors and elected officials, have denounced these billboards, but they are likely to stay put. At least until Election Day, that is.
Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner, who is black, described her reaction as she and Cleveland City Councilwoman Phyllis Cleveland stood in front of one of the signs.
"We went to that billboard together, as tears welled up in my eyes at the sight of that," she told MSNBC's Ed Schultz. "The fact that African-Americans have had to fight so hard to get the right to vote, and then you have groups who are putting billboards up like that. ...
"But we're going to continue to fight. We will not be pushed back by these intimidation efforts. They know disproportionately that this will have an impact on the African-American community. ... Some of them do have felonies. But you can vote in the state of Ohio even if you are an ex-offender."
In Ohio, to repeat:
Voter fraud is a myth.
Felons who have served their time can vote.
There are signs of trouble in Cleveland, rising like the ghosts of Jim Crow.