We’ve seen worse.
While many rightly describe the present election cycle as divisive and hate filled, the elections of 1874 and 1876 were – without question – the most violent elections in American history. This became painfully clear to me as I recently read a biography of President Ulysses S Grant. Ron Chernow’s portrayal of Grant made me aware of many historic realities, including how little progress we’ve actually made around racial reconciliation.
Chernow makes a strong argument for Grant as the least racist white President in American history and a true friend to people of color. During his administration (1868-1876), blacks had more rights and hopes than they would have for the next 90 years. Sadly, both Grant and Lincoln – Republican presidents – would abhor the Republican party of today as an anathema to all they fought for in the Civil War. In the 1870s, Republicans were the defenders of civil and voting rights for people of color. Tragically, in 1874 and 1876, the rights of black people, newly granted by the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments were besieged and systematically stripped from black citizens.
That we’ve seen worse should bring us no comfort. In many ways, today’s political rhetoric and maneuvering is reminiscent of the racial divisions and hatreds that fueled the violence in the 1870s. Chernow spends a chapter of his book chronicling how whites organized into groups like the Ku Klux Klan, White People’s Party, White Leaguers, Red Shirts, Knights of the White Camellia and the White Line Rifle Clubs. These groups had one primary function – terrorize blacks in order to keep them from voting. Chernow notes these groups successfully eliminated the black vote during those elections and laid the groundwork for 90 years of Jim Crow.
After reading his accounts, I have concluded that if you have a white male ancestor who lived in the South during those years, you are probably descended from a murderer. Though I had read of the reign of terror of the Ku Klux Klan in the late 1860s and early 1870s, I had not made the connection between these domestic terrorists and voting rights. This terrorism was not the acts of some fringe movement. The majority of Southern white men actively participated in the murder of black men and women during those years.
While the examples of this terror are numerous, I want to highlight the most grievous:
- In April of 1873, in Colfax Parish, Louisiana, a majority black county, a white mob surrounded the courthouse, targeted black office holders and killed 73 black men in a single day. If you have a white ancestor from Colfax Parish, you’re likely descended from a murderer.
- In August of 1874, six black leaders in Coushatta, Mississippi were drug from their beds by mobs of white men and murdered. If you have a white ancestor from Coushatta, you’re likely descended from a murderer.
- In September of 1874, White Leaguers stormed the New Orleans City Hall and Louisiana Statehouse, killing more than 20 public officials and insisting a white supremacist be seated as lieutenant governor. Over several days, hundreds of blacks in New Orleans were killed and thousands fled. The segregated schools and police force of New Orleans were disbanded. Five thousand federal troops had to be sent to restore order. If you have a white ancestor from Louisiana, you’re likely descended from a murderer.
- In December of 1874, the White League seized the Vicksburg, Mississippi courthouse, ran off the black Sheriff and office holders. In the course of several days, over 320 black men were killed and their bodies were allowed to rot in the streets. If you have a white ancestor from Mississippi, you’re likely descended from a murderer.
A subsequent Federal investigation would document over 2000 murders of black men and women in Mississippi and Louisiana in 1874 alone. These efforts to terrorize blacks were so successful that in the 1875 election in Yazoo County, Mississippi, a county with a majority population of 12,000 blacks, only eight votes were cast for Republicans. In 1876, there were only two votes. In early 1876, John Lynch, one of the last black Mississippi congressmen, wrote, “The Democrats (the white supremacy party of the 1870s) proposed to carry every Southern State as they carried Mississippi last year – not by power of the ballot – but by an organized system of terrorism and violence.”
He was prophetic. What succeeded in Mississippi and Louisiana spread throughout the South. South Carolina, which had been one of the most integrated governments in the South, completely changed in racial composition in one election cycle. On July 4, 1876, whites gathered outside Hamburg, SC – a strong black community – and demanded the black militia in that community disarm. When they refused, they attacked the town, killing dozens and pillaging every black home. This initiated a reign of terror than virtually ended all black voting in South Carolina for 90 years.
Why are these stories important?
White racists, then and now, fear them. They consistently do all in their power to obstruct and suppress the votes of people of color. Democracy is not their friend. These stories also remind us that civil and voting rights – though we may take them for granted – can easily and quickly be removed when whites decide to use their privilege and power. Progress is not inevitable. Our nation has and can regress. When white people look back nostalgically to the past, when they wax poetic about the Confederacy and the Southern way of life and when they suggest they want to make America great again, don’t be confused. These are the descendants of murderers.
For these reasons, I am less and less concerned about whether the Russians colluded with the Trump administration to assist in his election. The greatest threats to democratic elections are not foreign agents, but white strategies to disenfranchise people of color. Indeed, I’ve begun to wonder if the whole Mueller investigation is a distraction intended to focus our attention and energy on the trivial while the terrible takes place.
The American election system – rather than Russia – is to blame for our present plight. Trump energized white fear and exploited racial divides. He was assisted by an electoral system designed and controlled by white people. That is what should most concern us in 2018.
What should outrage us is Republican states purging their voting roles, invalidating thousands of registrations on technicalities and demanding Native Americans have a street address in order to vote. What should dismay us is how racial gerrymandering has allowed many states to be overly represented by white men. What should worry us is that predominantly white rural states will send 70 senators to Congress while predominantly minority urban states will send only 30, even though these minority states vastly outnumber the rural states in population. White men in Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina, Idaho, Wyoming and Oklahoma, as the system intended, will continue to be overly represented and empowered.
Though I do not think our present elections will descend into the violence of the 1870s, I worry that the elections of 2018 and 2020 could be as damaging to our democracy. Whether we realize it or not, we may be voting on what kind of country we will live in for the next 100 years – one where people of color are empowered or one where the progress of the past 50 years is destroyed and people of color are disenfranchised.
It happened in 1876. It can happen again.
Now, while you can, get out and vote.