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What Trump did to Shaye Moss and her family follows a dark American tradition

Racialized political violence targeted against African Americans participating in civic affairs may have dissipated — but it did not disappear.
Wandrea "Shaye" Moss and Ruby Freeman
Wandrea "Shaye" Moss, left, is comforted by her mother Ruby Freeman as the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol continues, at the Capitol, on June 21, 2022.Jacquelyn Martin / AP

Imagine living in a country in which the head of state identifies you and a loved one by name as nefarious political operatives working against him, and instigating others to hunt you down based on a completely fabricated conspiracy story. Does this sound like this could happen in the United States in 2020? Well, it did happen when former-President Donald Trump accused Ruby Freeman and her daughter Wandrea “Shaye” Moss, two African American women, of sabotaging the presidential election in Georgia.

Although it is astonishing to hear open targeting like this originating in the White House, it is just one example of the deep-seated American tradition of racialized political violence targeted against African Americans participating in civic affairs. Make no mistakes about it: Demonizing Black people was a key part of growing the Big Lie.

On Tuesday, during Day 4 of the Jan. 6 hearings, the details of what the committee and millions of people across the country heard from Freeman and Moss harkens back to the eras of abolitionism against slavery, Reconstruction, the history of lynching and the opposition to civil rights activists in the 1960s and beyond.

Freeman and Moss exemplify traditions among Black women who have insisted on exercising all the rights of citizenship

“The president of the United States is supposed to represent every American. Not to target one. But he targeted me, Lady Ruby, a small-business owner, a mother, a proud American citizen, who stood up to help Fulton County run an election in the middle of the pandemic,” said Freeman.

And targeted is indeed the only way to describe it. Trump and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani told stories at rallies, on TV and on social media that Freeman and Moss, election workers in Atlanta, conspired to commit voter fraud to deny Trump re-election. Trump derisively called Freeman a “hustler” in his notorious call to the Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger on Jan. 2, 2021, fishing for votes to alter the final tally. The former president has a history of regularly attacking Black people he doesn’t like.  

However, it wasn’t just Trump and Giuliani. Popular Fox News and One America News TV personalities amplified the election scam narrative as they circulated a video they claimed showed the mother and daughter exchanging a USB drive containing fraudulent ballots in the middle of the tabulation. It was “as if they are passing vials of heroin or cocaine,” Giuliani sneered, falsely, reveling in the tough-on-crime imagery from his days as New York City’s mayor that led to disproportionately singling out African Americans for arrests in drug crimes. When she testified though, Moss rejected his accusation under oath, saying that the actual item her mother handed her was … a ginger mint. (Last December, Moss and Freeman filed a defamation suit against OAN and Giuliani. They reached a settlement with OAN.)

Undoubtedly, Trump and Giuliani’s racialized language was meant as fodder to incense followers of the Big Lie who wanted to believe that Black and other voters of color in inner cities like Philadelphia, Chicago and Detroit stole the election. Moss testified that Trump supporters sent her messages saying that she should “be glad it’s 2020 and not 1920,” and in her written remarks, she talked about how she and her mom were told that they should “hang … for committing treason”— both references to the history of lynching.

Moss shared how others showed up at her grandmother’s house and forced their way in to search for her and Freeman in an effort to make a “citizen’s arrest.” The term has a long history of association with vigilante violence used against African Americans engaged in whatever infractions whites deemed offensive to assert moral authority over their lives. The threats were so severe that the FBI warned Freeman it was unsafe to stay in her home in the days leading up to Jan. 6. 

Hearing these Black women publicly tell the nation how they became convenient scapegoats — figures whose names were repeatedly linked to broad baseless allegations of voter fraud — served as a sad reminder of this country’s history.

But there was another significant takeaway of this hearing. It came when Moss explained her motivations behind her commitment to being an election worker. “I’ve always been told by my grandmother how important it is to vote and how people before me, a lot of people, older people in my family, did not have that right,” she said. She shared that she enjoyed her civic duty, especially helping elderly and disabled voters who could not access or navigate the electronic system or had questions they needed answered by a real person. She relished going the extra mile beyond her official duties. “I even remember driving to a hospital to give someone her absentee application. That’s what I loved the most,” Moss recalled.

Freeman and Moss exemplify traditions among Black women who have insisted on exercising all the rights of citizenship, regardless of their formal standing in the civic arena and even when their contributions have been mocked and rebuffed. Black women spoke out forcefully against human bondage as abolitionists in the antebellum era when it was still controversial for women to act in public roles. They refused to stay on the sidelines when Black men secured the right to vote with the ratification of the 15th Amendment during Reconstruction. As I’ve detailed in my book “To ‘Joy My Freedom,” they attended rallies, debated political platforms, wore buttons of their favorite candidates, took time off from jobs to go to the polls to make sure their men cast the right ballots and even stood as armed guards when necessary to foil the opposition. 

Let’s not forget that they did these things at considerable risk. The Ku Klux Klan did not take a shine to any of these activities and freely directed their ire against men, women and children alike. Black women were empowered after the Voting Rights Act in 1965 to expand their involvement in electoral politics as poll workers, voters, campaigners and eventually candidates for office. But their actions, even as nonpartisan civic workers, like Freeman and Moss, have never been fully safe. White vigilante harassment and violence aimed at intimidating them into silence and passivity dissipated but did not disappear.  

Its nagging presence has been clear in Trump’s promotion of racist conspiracy theories going back to the days of birtherism, which catapulted him into the national spotlight and animated his continuing popular appeal. 

And it was on full display in the symbols that his violent supporters carried into the Capitol building — and in the epithets they hurled at Black officers who defended lawmakers and the hallowed grounds. ​​The former president is their last hope for holding back the throngs of diverse Americans who will reshape the national landscape if allowed to prosper unimpeded and shift the levers of political and economic power. 

If the people who have the power to hold Trump and his supporters accountable stand by and stand down and let women like Moss and Freeman suffer without consequences, it will be a sure sign that whatever progress we’ve made on universal democratic rights is under threat, and the grand and fragile “American experiment” will surely perish.