U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, in an emotional and pointed floor speech this week, had one question for the Democrats who have continued to compare the wave of new state voting restrictions to the segregationist days of Jim Crow. “How many Americans understand what Jim Crow was?” the South Carolina Republican asked his fellow senators in the upper chamber, where Scott is the lone Black Republican and one of just three African American senators overall. Then Scott launched into a history lesson that was also deeply personal.

He spoke of Jim Crow literacy tests, which were designed to keep Black Americans from being able to cast a ballot. He noted that in the Jim Crow South, an era that his grandfather Artis Ware lived through, African Americans could be beaten, lose their jobs or be lynched if they so much as dared to vote.

“When I think about the important issue of voting, and when I think about the issue of voter suppression, it lands on my front porch,” said Scott, who has lived and voted in the Deep South his entire life. “As a person who was born in 1965, with a mama who understands racism, discrimination and separate and not equal, the grandfather who I took to vote and helped him cast his vote because he was unable to read, to have a conversation in a narrative that is blatantly false is offensive,” Scott said. “Not just to me or Southern Americans, but offensive to millions of Americans who fought bled and died for the right to vote.” Scott’s impassioned speech — and a heated response from another Black senator, New Jersey’s Cory Booker — came during Wednesday’s day-long debate over a sweeping elections package that would have, among other things, made Election Day a national holiday, restored elements of the landmark Voting Rights Act and allowed all voters to cast ballots by mail. It also would have banned partisan gerrymandering and forced “dark money” groups to disclose their major donors. The legislation was a Democrat-led effort to try to pass a major overhaul ahead of this year’s November elections as a wave of Republican-led state legislatures, including South Carolina, are filing bills that make it harder to vote.

Scott, who has characterized himself a relentless optimist, accused his colleagues of turning a blind eye to progress. He used his own political rise to make the case. When Scott was elected to Congress in 2010, he defeated the son of late GOP segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond in a crowded Republican primary. “I won that race not merely because of who I am, but because of who we have become, as a nation,” Scott said. “The evolution of the hearts of America and the hearts of Southerners could not be more clear on a day when the son of a single mother, mired in poverty, runs against the son of one of the most famous senators in the history of the country and comes out victorious.” Referring to himself and U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, a Georgia Democrat and one of the chamber’s three Black senators, Scott said, “It’s hard to deny progress when two of the three come from the Southern states that people say are the places where African American votes are being suppressed.”

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