Two Roads to 2008: Miguel and the Boogie Man

Millions of words are being written about the significance of Barack Obama’s victory last week – the emergence of a new majority coalition, the fundamental redrawing of the electoral map, the transcending of America’s historic racial divide.

The 2008 election is one for the ages.

A look back always helps to put things in context. I see where PBS’s Frontline will broadcast “Boogie Man – The Lee Atwater Story.” Appropriate.

Twenty years ago – November 1988: Lee Atwater was the master of American politics, having just managed the successful presidential campaign of George H. W. Bush. That was the campaign that sharpened racial divisions, making “Willie Horton” and “wedge issues” household words. Lee pioneered the art of push polling and voter suppression.

Atwater performed his political apprenticeship with Strom Thurmond, the South Carolina senator who led the movement of “solid South” segregationists out of the Democratic Party and into the GOP.

Upon Bush the Elder’s ascendancy to the presidency, Atwater was installed as head of the RNC. Two years later, the Boogie Man was dead of a brain tumor at the age of 41. From his deathbed, Atwater issued an apology for his career of campaign dirty tricks.

But Atwater lived on through his protégée, Karl Rove.

Watch Boogie Man on Tuesday, Nov. 11 at 9 PM on KNME, Channel 5.

Miguel Trujillo

Sixty years ago – 1948. Miguel Trujillo, a Native American veteran just returned from World War II, went to the Valencia County Clerk’s office to register to vote. Trujillo was turned away.

Here’s a fine account by Jes Abeita that appeared in the Alibi earlier this year:

The systematic disenfranchisement of Native Americans went unquestioned for a long time. The Citizenship Act was passed in 1924, and as the name implies, it was supposed to convey all the benefits of United States citizenship on Native Americans. In fact, the bill read, “All non citizen Indians born within the territorial limits of the United States be, and they are hereby, declared to be citizens of the United States.” Still, a Native American man or woman living on a reservation in New Mexico (or as the state constitution referred to them, “Indians not taxed”) could not vote… Natives who did not live on reservations were technically allowed to vote. For most, that would mean leaving their home community and, for many, assimilating into non-Native society.

Native American veterans returning home from World War II were no exception. Young men who were considered capable enough to fight for their country, if they returned to their reservation, still weren’t considered worthy to vote in the elections that shaped the very country they had served.

But one Isleta Pueblo man forced the state to change. Miguel Trujillo… was a veteran of the United States Marine Corps. In his post, he saw many young Native American men sign up to ship out, some never to return… It wasn’t until 1948, when Trujillo made the trip from his home in Isleta to register in Valencia County and was denied, that the vote came within the grasp of the original peoples of New Mexico.

Trujillo filled a lawsuit against the state and Trujillo v. Garley, the case that would decide once and for all if New Mexico’s Native Americans could vote, was born.

In Trujillo v. Garley, a three-judge federal panel pointed out that whites who paid no taxes were not disenfranchised. It ruled that New Mexico’s constitution violated the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.

Trujillo would have been pleased by evidence of energized turnout by Native Americans in New Mexico on Tuesday. See the story in the NM Independent, “Obama dominates traditional pueblo.”

Two Americans. Two very different roads traveled.

On November 4th, the arc of these two legacies intersected and crossed. Miguel won this one. About time.


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